Friday, July 29, 2005

Tour 5: Sandwich World Tour

Row 1: Eisenberg's; Turkey Reuben; Tony Luke's
Row 2: Tony Luke's Pork Italian; 5 Ninth's Cubano; 5 Ninth's Banh Mi
Row 3: Caracas; Chopiarepa; Comeflor Arepa

As Sandwich World Tour ended up being one of my favorite food adventures in New York, I figured I’d review it in the form of one of my favorite poems. Thanks Eliot.

"The Love Song of S. Wich Rockefeller"

Let us go then, Danny and I,
While the morning is spread across the sky,
Like a sandwich sliced on a cutting board.
Let us go, through less than deserted streets,
The enticing treats
Of restless tours in this great city,
And sandwich restaurants costing less than ten fifty:
Treats that follow like a brilliant argument
Of delicious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visits.

In the classic sandwich shop the clients come and go
Talking of sandwiches made nice and slow.

RESTAURANT: Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop
LOCATION: 174 Fifth Ave Ste 1
SANDWICH: Split a Turkey Reuben
PRICE: $4.50

The sauerkraut fog that rubs its back upon the rye bread panes,
The sliced turkey that rubs its muzzle on the rye bread panes
I licked my tongue into the corners of the seasoning,
Lingered upon the excess salt that was a bit of a drain,
Let fall upon my tongue the Swiss that comes from cows,
Slipped between the turkey and kraut, but couldn’t make the leap,
And seeing that it was only of mediocre might,
We only ate half as there were miles to go before we could sleep.

RATING: 6.0/10

: Tony Luke’s
LOCATION: 576 9th Ave
SANDWICH: Split a Pork Italian
PRICE: $5.50 (with bottled water)

And indeed there was time
To walk the long distance to 9th Avenue where it crosses 42nd street,
Even in the hot sun, Tony Luke’s was worth the pains;
There was time, there was time
To prepare a Pork Italian like nothing else you could eat;
There will be time to indulge and salivate,
And time for all the broccoli rabe to cover your hands
That lift and drop the sandwich on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a sliced pork decisions,
And for a hundred dreams and visions,
Of Tony Luke’s toasty sandwich mastery.

RATING: 8.5/10

Along 9th Avenue the bloggers come and go
Talking of Bahn Mi and Cubanos.

LOCATION: 5 9th Ave
SANDWICH: Split a Banh Mi and a Cubano
PRICE: $32.00 (with a margarita)

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I share?”
Time to eat two that are more than fair,
With more spicy red sauced pork prepared with care—
[They will say: “How Nicky’s is better, the real thing!”]
My agreement but 5 Ninth’s is still worth the bling
Do I share
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For Cubanos and infusion which it’s better not to reverse.

For I have known others already, known Cubanos all:—
The pork that fixes you in a contented haze,
And leaves me contented, and far from thin,
When I left 5 Ninth, I decided their Cubano should hang in a hall
Then how could I begin
To spit out all the deliciousness of my days and ways?
And how should I consume?

RATING: 7.5/10

RESTAURANT: Caracas Arepa Bar
LOCATION: 91 East 7th Street
SANDWICH: Chopiarepa (Inspired on the "Choripan" (chorizo+baguette), this street delight arepa has grilled chorizos and cheddar cheese; also added plantains); La Comeflor (sautéed mushrooms with leek and aged cheese)
PRICE: $21.00 (with a Chicha Rice Drink and Half a Banana Milkshake)

And I hadn’t known the arepas already, never known them all—
Arepas that are corn crunched and yellow and blair
[But what in the world, nothing else to these do compare!]
It is spicy chorizo and nothing less
That makes me so ingest?
Arepas that lie along a table, or deserve to stand tall.
And should I then consume?
And how should I begin?

Shall I say, I have enjoyed arepas stuffed with meats
And watched the cheese that melts, oh what a sight
Or mushroom and leeks, falling out of their arepas windows?…

I should have been a pair of these amazing corn claws
Filling across my stomach, Caracas an infinite please.

RATING: 8.5/10

And the morning, the adventure, sandwiched so peacefully!
Grasped by my fingers,
Breaded … fried … oh it lingers,
Sandwiched forever, here beside Danny and me.
Should I, after Bahn Mi and Cubanos and Pork Slices,
Always want more sandwiches, oh what a crisis!

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Restaurant 59: Itzocan Bistro

Clockwise from top left: Pumpkin and shrimp soup; Mushroom crepes; Pork Scallopine; Pear Tarte.

RESTAURANT: Itzocan Bistro
LOCATION: 1575 Lexington Ave. (Upper East Side) at 101st St.
DATE: July 23, 2005
FOOD: Appetizer: Pumpkin and Shrimp Soup with Chipotle Crema Fresca; Entrees: Split the Wild Mushroom Huitlacoche Crepes with Brie and Poblano Crema Fresca; Sauteed Pork Scallopine with Potato Hash and Black Trumpet Mushroom Sauce; Dessert: Ibarra Chocolate Pear Tarte with Goat’s Milk Caramel Sauce.
BEVERAGE: Split a pitcher of Red Sangria
COST: $52.00

You don’t need chips and salsa to be classified as Mexican food. At Itzocan Bistro, near east Harlem on the Upper East Side, meals open with bread and olive oil tableside. It’s a European twist on conventional Mexican dining. A quick glance over the menu reveals Itzocan Bistro bears as much resemblance to a taco stand as Oedipus does to an archetypical father and son. With dishes that include just as much crème fraiche as they do jalapenos, it might not even be proper to call Itzocan Bistro a Mexican restaurant – perhaps its more of a renegade, Francophile cousin.

But familial metaphors are apt. Itzocan Bistro could be called the sister or more mature second child of Itzocan Café, the outstanding East Village four table restaurant of chefs and brothers Anselmo and Fermin Bello. At Itzocan Café, the fare is more traditionally Mexican, though the French accents pervade just as they do at the Bistro. However, at the Bistro, the brothers Bellos have more nakedly revealed their ambitions. Through their Mexican-French fusion cuisine, the brothers set to do for Mexican what so many chefs have done for Asian – elevate it to the level of fine-dining.

This is not to suggest that Itzocan Bistro is fancy or even slightly pretentious. It’s the food that’s fine, while the atmosphere is more barrio than bourgeois, the service more ambiente than mannerly mechanical, and the prices are a far cry from the thirty dollar entrees and fifteen dollar cocktails of many Manhattan establishments. In sum, Itzocan Bistro is the perfect second step in what hopefully will become yet another New York food empire, though this one’s all in the family.

Having spent the last month living on the Upper East Side, it was interesting to go even further north into the nebulous region where the Upper East becomes East Harlem. In a neighborhood otherwise populated by bodegas and housing complexes, Itzocan Bistro sticks out like Geoffrey Firmin drinking in a hacienda of locals in Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The area doesn’t appear to have many other restaurants striving for greatness. But this was fine with Thomas, Danny, and I, as we weren’t concerned with the digs, we were concerned with the food.

All three of us started with an interesting re-imagining of seafood bisque. In lieu of heavy cream, there was crème fraiche. Pumpkin had displaced the standard carrots and leeks. And instead of lobster or a variety of other seafood, the soup had shrimp and shrimp alone. However, even with all the renovations, the soup still tasted mostly of cream. The pumpkin was a bit masked and a slightly annoying inconvenience presented itself when we realized the shrimp weren’t shelled. While this rustic touch would work well in other dishes, in a soup it was messy and unwarranted. Because the shrimp had to be eaten individually, their flavor wasn’t able to fully mesh in with the rest of the soup, which was a shame as otherwise, it was a very satisfying opener, especially due to the jalapeno kick which contrasted well with the smoothness of the cream.

Next, Danny and I split wild mushroom crepes with brie and another dose of crème fraiche. The crepes were hearty enough to be an entrée, but possessed a sprightly earthy taste brought about by the Huitlacoche, or Mexican mushrooms. Brie is perhaps the ideal cheese for crepes and its inherent creaminess added a gooey but measured consistency to the crepes. If the kitchen had showed a bit more restraint with the mushroom and vegetable saucing, the crepes would have been outstanding. But it was still nice to see how well a traditionally French dish could be used for definitely non-French purposes.

However, what made my meal at Itzocan as successful as it was, came down to one course, and one course alone. My entrée, the pork scallopine, is certainly one of the twenty best entrees I’ve had in New York. The pork had been pounded to a beautiful thinness. Whereas the crepes had too much saucing, the black trumpet mushroom gravy covering the pork was applied in the perfect amount. The gravy softened the potato hash hidden beneath the tearfully tender pork, leaving the root vegetables saturated with the same salty excellence of the rest of the meal. Al Di La’s pork saltimboco is the only rendition of pig that comes compares to the mastery of Itzocan Bistro’s scallopine.

If the pork had been Acapulco, dessert was Oaxaca, a diverse blend of old and new influences. The pear tarte was shockingly savory and nearly devoid altogether of sugar taste. Closer to a minced meat pie than chocolate, the Ibarra had the texture of brown sugar and the tang of bitter, unsweetened chocolate. Along with the strange goat’s milk caramel sauce (again lacking in sweetness), the entire dessert was a novel experience. I still haven’t decided if I liked it or not, though I’m certainly glad I ordered it. Like much else at Itzocan Bistro, the pear tarte wasn’t something I could have had elsewhere and my palate is better for the occurrence.

Though no Mexican ancestry courses through my veins, the meal at Itzocan Bistro tasted like home cooking. Perhaps it is best described as the Mexican Rose Water, a place where familiar food is infused with ingredients and panache distinctly Mexican, but prepared with the elegance of French dining. Regardless of the comparisons, Itzocan Bistro has more than enough polish and grace to stand on its own. As great as Itzocan Café is, Itzocan Bistro is a clear sign the Bellos brothers are on their way to becoming legends in this city.

RATING: 8.0/10

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Restaurant 58: L&B Spumoni Gardens (Infinite Feast XXII)

RESTAURANT: L&B Spumoni Gardens
LOCATION: 2725 86th St., Brooklyn
DATE: July 23, 2005
FOOD: Sicilian Slice; Two Round Slices with Sausage and Mushrooms; Large Cone with Rainbow Spumoni; Large Cup with Peach, Vanilla Chip, and Pineapple Sorbet.
PRICE: $10.00

Once upon a time in a city very much like New York, a young man set out on an adventure. Now this young man was not unlike other men his age. In fact, upon meeting him, he probably would not have made all the much of an impression. But regardless of this personality innocuousness, it is this young man that our story concerns.

The young man had traveled all over the city very much like New York searching for the best pizza. He had embarked on a Pizza World Tour, stuffing himself with pizzas from all five boroughs. He had tasted more refined versions of pizza at Una Pizza and Otto. And yet, like all adventurers, he was still unsatisfied. He wanted to try more.

Thus, when he heard of a restaurant in a place not unlike Brooklyn heralded for its Sicilian slices, he decided to journey to the distant land to experience a slice for himself. But the journey was filled with unexpected perils. An express train suddenly ran local. His stomach, inexplicitly, caused him great pains. The moderately warm temperature induced shvitzing all over his body. At certain points, the young man wondered whether he was really cut out for such a quest.

But he persevered. Finally, he arrived at his destination. In the place not unlike Brooklyn, in a locale not at all dissimilar from Bensonhurt, L&B Spumoni Gardens had thrived as an authentic neighborhood Italian restaurant since its founding in 1939. The young man was overwhelmed with excitement and soon forgot the obstacles he had faced during his trek. L&B was large and impressive, three eateries in one, with a take out pizza counter, ice cream stand and sit-down restaurant existing together harmoniously. An muted red awning distinguished L&B from its surroundings.

The young man had traveled with a friend and they decided to eat indoors. The restaurant was filled with boisterous parties of people young and old. Many seemed to be regulars. Many seemed to have had too much pizza in their lives. Their chairs seem to sag beneath them. But, with nary a glance at the rest of the clientele or menu, the young man ordered a Sicilian slice and a round slice, come what may.

The pizza came quickly. The Sicilian looked delicious. He snapped a quick picture to commemorate the meal and then immediately sank his teeth into the slice. Utopia? Revelry?

No. Neither. The slice was good, certainly. But legendary? Definitely not. While the thick, French bread like crust had a rewarding crunch, the sauce and cheese on top was soupy and insipid. It was like meeting the young man for the first time – nothing stood out.

But perhaps the round slice would be better? Before the young man had even take a bite, he was already doubting the prospect. For though he had ordered a sausage and mushroom slice, what he say in front of him, unbelievably in a day and age of near universal fresh produce usage, were (oh the words are hard to even write)…CANNED MUSHROOMS! Salty and limp, they detracted from an otherwise quality slice. The Italian sausage did nothing to help the cause, as boring and lifeless as reading about the young man. The round slice would have been better without the toppings, but he was already full. There was no time left to test his hypothesis.

Fortunately, he consoled himself with dessert. The rainbow spumoni was packed with intense flavors. His favorite was the pistachio, the real nuts added texture to the smoothness of the icy cream. He followed the spumoni with a commendable mix of sorbets. The peach tasted, get this, just like a fresh peach. But he really loved the vanilla chip, chocolate and vanilla not having gone together so well since the invention of the black and white cookie.

All in all then, our young man’s quest had not been in vain. While he might not have found the pizza he was looking for, no adventure is ever worthless. He had learned something about himself, though he had no idea what it was. He boarded a train (again running local) and headed back to the borough not unlike Manhattan from which he had begun, tired, but ready start out again, the next time some food exploring beckoned.

RATING: 6.3/10

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Restaurant 57: Le Bernardin

Clockwise from top left: Tuna; Escolar; Salmon; Lobster.

RESTAURANT: Le Bernardin
LOCATION: 155 West 51st Street
DATE: July 22, 2005
FOOD: Chef’s Tasting Menu: Amuse: Lobster in foamed broth; TUNA: Layers of Thinly Pounded Yellowfin Tuna, Foie Gras and Toasted Baguette; Shaved Chives and Extra Virgin Olive Oil; CAVIAR – PASTA: Iranian Osetra Caviar on a Nest of Tagliolini, Quail Egg and Bacon Carbonara Sauce; ESCOLAR: Hawaiian Escolar Slowly Poached in Extra Virgin Olive Oil; Petite Salad of Lettuce Hearts and Tomato Confit (Served Rare); LOBSTER: Baked Lobster; Citrus-Mango Emulsion; Endive and Sheep's Milk Ricotta Gnocchi; WILD SALMON: Barely Cooked Salmon; Wasabi Pea Purée, Fava Beans, Asparagus in a Yuzu Butter; CODFISH: Pan Roasted Codfish, Sautéed Baby Artichokes, Pistachio and Parmesan in a Sage and Garlic Perfumed Broth; "EGG": Milk Chocolate Pot de Crème, Caramel Foam, Maple Syrup Maldon Sea Salt; PINEAPPLE – COCONUT: Almond Pain de Gênes, Vanilla-Roasted Pineapple, Coconut Sorbet, Crushed Pistachio; CHOCOLATE-CASHEW Dark Chocolate, Cashew and Caramel Tart, Red Wine Reduction, Banana, and Malted Rum Milk Chocolate Ice Cream
BEVERAGE: Martini; Split two bottles of White Wine; Decaf Cappuccino
PRICE: $285.00

Let the trumpets roar and Poseidon sing! There is glory in the seas once again.

Well truthfully, the glory is actually on the land, but the sea and Poseidon can at least take pride – but not the credit. Chef Eric Ripert deserves that and a whole lot of praise.

Known as New York’s only fine-dining French seafood only restaurant, Le Bernardin had its 4-Star status reaffirmed by the New York Times’ Frank Bruni earlier this year. The review confirmed executive chef Eric Ripert’s standing as one of New York’s premiere culinary minds. While newcomers like Per Se and Masa grab headlines, Ripert has lofted Le Bernardin impeccable reputation with less fanfare and theatrics. But a night with his seafood is just as singular an experience as one with Masa’s sushi or Keller’s “creations”.

Located in the Equitable Building in west midtown, Le Bernardin manages to diffuse the clamor of the hustle-bustle streets outside, generating a tranquil dining room, artistically decorated with post-impressionism styled paintings of French beaches. Huge bouquets of exotic flavors are the only atmospheric hint of the diversity and artistry parceled within the seafood fare to come. While a four course prix-fixe is available, the chef’s tasting menu, consisting of six fish courses and two desserts afforded the greatest opportunity to sample as much of Ripert’s genius as possible. Ripert’s fish is incredibly fresh, so fresh in fact, that many of the dishes are served rare to fully exemplify this quality. It is this for which the patrons flock.

The meal began with a lovely and pliant lobster, covered in a dainty foam emulsion, the ethereal presentation an ideal way to ease the diner into the tasting menu. But as the taste of the lobster receded, the tuna was propelled onto the stage. With a construction that made it perhaps the most pictorial fish course of the evening, a blanket of paper thin yellow tail provided concealment for a bed of foie gras and toasted baguette hidden beneath. It was a tremendous combination of flavors, as rich as steak, but with a delicacy distinctly fish. The foie gras was a surprisingly apt pair for the yellowtail; its creaminess acting almost like a sauce for the otherwise sparsely adorned tuna. A dusting of chives gave the raw tuna a maki framing that captured the true essence of the yellowtail.

But immediately following the tuna was perhaps the most “Per Se” inspired course of the night – and perhaps the best course as well. In what Keller might have called “Eggs and Bacon”, Ripert constructed a magnificent pasta dish designed to showcase unbelievably delicious Iranian caviar. Tagliolini noodles came mixed in classic Carbonara sauce of eggs, cream, and butter, but wisely touched up with bacon. On top of the pasta was a poached quail egg, which was itself topped with the aforementioned dollop of black caviar. The arrangement was like listening to Miles Davis play the trumpet – bold and soulful and completely unlike anything else. The saltiness of the bacon and caviar played off one another instead of clashing, while the creaminess of the poached quail egg matched that of the Carbonara sauce. That Ripert serves such masterful pasta, despite his French background, is only further cause to extol his abilities.

A Hawaiian white fish known as Escolar was next. Though having the appearance of chalk, the fish tasted the opposite of dry, its fatty cohesiveness more like a pate than seafood. Coupled with a parmesan influenced salad, the Escolar, was pleasurable without being outstanding, though this had more to do with the type of fish and not its preparation. Escolar is clearly a fish some will love while others will find less satisfying, its unique milky texture not something to be entered into lightly.

However, there was nothing odd about the lobster course. Lobster is too often like the crime thriller genre of literature – often attempted, but rarely put forth with success. For every treasured rethinking of the genre, like Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, there are countless Janet Evanovich dumbed-down offerings. Of course, Ripert’s lobster was no Mary Higgins Clark. In a brash snub to convention and to the earlier lobster amuse, Le Bernardin’s bathed its lobster course in a vermillion citrus-mango emulsion that would have had Jean Georges fans drooling. But the petite squares of goat’s milk gnocchi set the dish into previously unattained orbits. Every inch of the tender lobster meat was infused with flavor but one completely different than that of the ricotta like gnocchi. The cross cultural nature of the dish was sublime and instead of confusion from such diversity, there was only harmonious exchange.

In a rare turn of convention, the wild salmon was supplemented with fava beans, wasabi peas and asparagus, a pairing that has become common throughout the city. However, this takes nothing aware from the delicious nature of Le Bernardin’s dish, which focused on drawing out every last ounce of flavor in the fish. Ripert succeeded at this and the greens worked well as added texture and layering.

Instead of going out with a whimper, the fish courses ended with a bang. The cod, simple and accented with a savory semi-clear broth was astonishing. The fish was seared expertly, with a flush, un-flaky core not usually associated with white fish. The broth and parmesan cheese added a sublime suggestion of saltiness. It’s only rival would be the cod of the Modern, which used chorizo, a luxury Ripert did not allow himself. Instead, like so much at Le Bernardin, it was the fish and fish alone that was the main concern and for this Ripert should be commended. The fish is treated with as much respect as Raymond Queneau treated his title character in Zazie on the Metro. The cod was the type of dish a kitchen can build its entire reputation on. At Le Bernardin, it was just one of many masterpieces.

One might almost expect the desserts to lag behind in a restaurant so uniformly concentrated on seafood. Fortunately, this was not the case. The “Egg” was one of the best desserts to be had anywhere in the city. Ornately plated and with the austere appearance of a Rothko canvas, a brown egg came filled with crème, maple syrup and caramel. The ingredients were layered so that spooning into the egg was like Indiana Jones digging for buried treasure. Each stage provided yet another flavor of sweetness to indulge in.

The main dessert, or in actuality, desserts, were just as impressive. Having requested a substitution of the Chocolate-Cashew for the Pineapple-Coconut on the Chef’s menu, instead the customer-friendly staff brought both. Even at the end of such a luxurious meal, it was impossible not to finish each of the two plates. The Chocolate-Cashew was proof that chocolate and nuts should always come together and beautifully compliment by the Whoppers like malted ice cream. The Pineapple-Coconut consisted of a caramelized roasted pineapple and an almond cake that subtlety buttressed the fruit. All in all, it was a welcome and precipitous wonder that the desserts lived up to the fish. Yet another reason Le Bernardin is one of the five four stars in this city.

The service was well trained, their timing on presenting dishes in unison a paradigm of orchestration, akin to watching preeminent dancers perform their art. Though Le Bernardin might possess a degree of stuffiness at lunch, when wealthy businessmen fill its seats, during a Friday night dinner, the vibe was relaxed. There was a buzz amongst the tables whereas at Jean Georges, the feel was more mausoleum or library than joyous dining experience. Again, Ripert deserves credit for deftly maneuvering between formality and casual, somehow straddling the line perfectly.

The night at Le Bernardin is one it’d be inconceivable to imagine forgetting. Every detail is noticed, every possible demand of diners met before the words are uttered. Eric Ripert takes fish and redefines it in his image. After such a meal, even Poseidon himself would probably be inclined to begin a hagiography of Ripert’s craft. Le Bernardin sets the diner to sea and there’s nothing fishy about it.

RATING: 10/10

Book 16: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood (Multitude of Drops 2)

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Anchor; 1st Anchor Books ed edition (March 16, 1998)

Religious fanaticism reaches an extreme. America’s leaders become more and more conservative in their moral views. The rights of women, minorities, and homosexuals are at first lessened and subsequently removed altogether. An uncontrollable outside enemy, Islamic in its origin, is a threat used to justify the tightened laws and displaced freedoms.

It’s a description that sounds eerily familiar and yet Margaret Atwood wasn’t describing contemporary Bush America, but rather the future state of Gilead, the society in which her Handmaid’s Tale takes place. In the grand tradition of Huxley, Bradbury, and Orwell, Atwood creates a dystopia in which men have completely subjugated women, making the latter mere child-bearing vessels for a culture desperately using religion to at justify its own existence and turn in upon itself. Written in the 1980s, at the peak of Reagan era Christian conservatism, Handmaid’s Tale successfully invokes the image of a society in which a corrupted view of religion becomes the basis for an entire nation of broken up families, government censorship, and legalized rape.

The novel is the first hand account of Offred, a woman forced to be a Handmaid in Gilead. Handmaid’s are birthing machines, with no rights or freedoms, other than the right to have the children of the Commanders, the men who control the society. The Commanders have wives, but these women are long past being able to give birth. So instead, to counteract a dwindling population, decimated by environmental disasters, Handmaid’s are the sole hope for the future. Offred is as much a character as a woman in her position can be. Her role in society is strictly to produce – beyond that she is of no use, and the greater the anonymity of her persona, the smoother her life will be. There is no way to fight those in charge. Any protest leads to death or deportation to a distant wasteland and a lifetime of disposing of nuclear spillage.

But though the leaders of Gilead try to indoctrinate her, Offred cannot forget her past life – her husband Luke, her hippy mother, her daughter. It is these memories she clings onto as the single motivating force keeping her from suicide. Even as her resistance wilts and she foresees the future generations in which any type of different life will have been forgotten, Offred tries to remain some vestige of her old self. Though dystopian novels usually suffer from underdeveloped characters, Atwood masterfully makes Offred a complete person, one which the reader comes to care about, only furthering the affect of her disturbing story.

Atwood’s ability is only rivaled by her achievement. The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps more so than any other novel of its kind, illuminates the way culture and morality are entirely relativistic concepts. While President Bush may wage war between his good and evil duality, reality, as Atwood shows us, is far more complicated. The Commanders argue Gilead allows women to live better than before, as the fairer sex no longer has to worry about being sexually objectified, exploited in pornography, or raped against their will. The irony of the situation is obvious to the reader. When rape becomes a government endorsed program, women no longer have the capability to exert a will for the act to be against. When criminality becomes legality, to what authority can the oppressed appeal? Morality and religion are tools of the government used to serve their own ends. But even as the reader realizes this, he is required to ask himself about his own society and the very things Gilead rails against. Contemporary society treats women as objects, just in a different way from the members of Gilead. It is up to the reader to decide which state is more desirable. Atwood craftily leaves her tale ambiguous and open-ended, many more questions posed than answered.

Language, all its possibilities, all its power of persuasion and domination, ripples through Atwood’s pages like a motor boat’s wake. As in other dystopias, most memorably Orwell’s 1984, language is both a tool of repression and a possible means for reaching the salvation of freedom. Atwood plays constantly with her words. The signal to the reader comes immediately in Offred’s name, signifying both her position in society as being “of – Fred” or Fred’s (the Commander’s) Handmaid and yet simultaneously indicating Offred’s hatred of and tenuous position within the society. All Handmaid’s are required to wear red dresses (along with confining white headgear), and thus Offred’s name can be seen as an emblem of the way she is internally removed from the future America in which she is forced to suffer. Her soul is certainly off red in color.

Atwood writes in a terse style, though Biblical allusions abound in her prose. Hers is an accessible, yet deeply complicated and layered narrative, fitted with just enough ironic black humor to keep the reader from complete depression. One does not have the sense Atwood is a writer consumed by hatred of her subject, though her objection to the material is clear. But she lays out the possible dilemmas and problems of conservative Christianity taken to its extremes with a level and measured tone. In a contemporary America is which “Culture Wars” wage and close-mindedness and fear of difference is preached by all those in power, The Handmaid’s Tale still resonates long after the Reagan era of its publication. Atwood’s conceived society is pertinent today not only as a reminder of how power corrupts and morality is flexible, but also as an aesthetic powerhouse seldom equaled in literature of any kind.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Restaurant 56: Philoxenia

Clockwise from top left: Spanakopitakia; Taramosalata; Chicken Slouvaki; Feta Cheese Special.

RESTAURANT: Philoxenia
LOCATION: 26-18 23rd Avenue (26th Street), Astoria, Queens
DATE: July 19, 2005
FOOD: Split the following appetizers: Taramosalata (Carp roe caviar spread); Feta Cheese Special (broiled feat cheese with peppers, tomatoes, and olives); Spanakopitakia (Spinach Pie); Entrée: Chicken Soulvaki with French Fries and Sauteed Dandelions; Yogurt with Grapes and Honey (complimentary)
BEVERAGE: Half Carafe of House White Wine
PRICE: $23.00

Philoxenia is the Greek word for hospitality or “love of visitors”. So it seems only logical that a restaurant deciding to use the word as it’s name would be situated in a two story house, complete with a charming fence and outdoor patio, in a homey Astoria neighborhood. Such a setting exudes a “make yourself at home” quality that causes a diner to do just that – relax, sprawl in a chair, and kick back with some inexpensive wine($2.50 for a glass, $5.00 for a half-carafe).

Dionysia Germani, the owner, sometime chef, sometime waitress of Philoxenia, seems to embody the essence of hospitality in and of herself. She floats around the restaurant, paying careful attention to the customers, always ensuring that every empty water glass is filled, every request or substitution is met. If you’re Greek, there’s the possibility you may mistake her for your aunt, as such attentiveness is seldom extended to strangers in Manhattan restaurants.

The food at Philoxenia is just as traditional and comforting as the environs. While nothing is spectacular, the food is consistently good and affordable, the type of food experience it’s easy to walk away from feeling satisfied.

Crusty buttered bread, served warm and topped with oregano, begins the meal. A wide range of hot and cold appetizers open a lengthy menu compiled with English definitions for Greek dishes. This user-friendly touch allows diners to always know what they’re getting in for before ordering.

The baby pink taramosalata, a spread of caviar roe, was airier and less garlicky than at Taverna Kylcades and Pylos. While enjoyable, it was almost too slight in stature, as wispy as the gender ambiguous Cal in Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex is while a young boy/girl. However, there is nothing insubstantial about the spanakopitakia, delicious triangles of spinach and feta cheese wrapped tautly in phyllo dough. A welcome twist on conventional spinach pie, Philoxenia’s had a full layer of feta cheese inside the flaky crust. It made the turnovers creamier than versions in which the spinach and cheese is fully mixed.

But both roe dip and spinach pie are to Greek food what hamburgers and French fries are for American restaurants – their ubiquity can often result in a desire for something new, some Greek dish not available at every corner deli. Philoxenia’s broiled feta cheese special is the perfect solution for those seeking the untried. Broiled with tomatoes, olives, green peppers and spices, the feta cheese is served unpretentiously, wrapped in the very tin foil in which it simmered. It’s an outstanding way to eat heated cheese, as unlike fried haloumi or other Greek cheeses, the broiled feta was lacking in excess grease (one pun per review) and oil. The chicken slouvaki was the only major disappointment of the meal, tough and slightly bland, it failed to achieve the level of marinated succulence of chicken kebabs elsewhere. However, the cheese and oregano covered French fries and sweet and sultry wilted dandelions helped make up for the dry chicken.

In one final act of the aforementioned Greek hospitality, at Philoxenia, meals end with a bountiful portion of honey covered Greek yogurt and grapes. Smooth and light, the yogurt concluded a meal at once both cheering in its fare and its surroundings. With a price-tag far smaller than many lackluster Greek restaurants in Manhattan, Philoxenia might not be the best Greek in Astoria, but it might just be the best way to feel like you’re eating at home, even when you can’t.

RATING: 7.0/10

Friday, July 22, 2005

Just Desserts 13: ChikaLicious

RESTAURANT: ChikaLicious
LOCATION: 203 E 10th St.
DATE: July 17, 2005
DESSERT: Amuse – Caramel Gelee with Apricot Sorbet; Dessert – Warm Chocolate Tart with Pink Peppercorn Ice Cream and Red Wine Sauce; Petit Fours – Banana Cake; Lemon Espresso Chocolate; Coconut Marshmallow
PRICE: $16.00

A letter to Don and Chika Tillman, owners of ChikaLicious, a dessert bar in the East village that in actuality will never be sent, but which makes for a more interesting review than the usual formulaic stuff Rockefeller churns out, or if it doesn’t quite fit the level of “interesting” is at least a little less mundane…

Dear Don and Chika-

Don, I don’t know how proprietary you are, and I hope I’m not stepping on any toes by saying this, but you got one hell of a chica there in Chika (I’m sure I’m not the first to make this rather regrettable pun). Her desserts are outrageously delicious. Honestly, how have you not gained 200 pounds living with her? If I were you (which I think we’re both happy I’m not), I’d just pull a stool up at the bar every afternoon starting at three and eat my way through the entire menu. I mean, I’m sure it’s nice working with your wife and waiting on your devoted clientele, but wouldn’t it be better to just indulge your sweet tooth day after day? Maybe I’m just a glutton, but that’s what I’d do. I mean Chika worked at Gramercy Tavern for god’s sake, she knows what she’s doing.

Chika, wow, you’re amazing. I’ve dined at ChikaLicious twice now (though I’ve come and left when the wait has been too long at five other times as well) and both times were unforgettable. This visit I had the warm chocolate tart. I loved the way you contrasted the abrasiveness of the peppercorns with the sweetness of the ice cream. Your creativity is commendable to say the least. The red wine sauce was also an elegant companion to the richness of the chocolate and I wish more restaurants would use this type of saucing in their desserts. The best of the petit fours, in my opinion, was the banana cake. The only problem was it tasted so delightful, I wanted it to be another full course of dessert rather than a tiny sampling. But that’s not really your fault now is it? Well I mean, it is, but only in the good sense of fault. Libby had the cherry soup (what I ordered on my first visit) and such an innovative and silky dessert can be had at few other places. The cornbread accompaniment provided a beautiful compliment of substantiality to pair with the soup’s delicacy. Libby loved it.

So yeah, I know this letter has been a bit rambling, but I just wanted to thank you for keeping on doing what you’re doing. ChikaLicious is like no other place in New York. I love sitting at the bar and watching Chika prepare the desserts. It feels like I’m in my mom’s or aunt’s kitchen, impatiently awaiting the culinary pleasure to come. ChikaLicious is like having a gourmet chef prepare dessert for you in your own home. So thank you. When I return to New York, I can promise I’ll be returning to ChikaLicious.

Sweetly yours,

RATING: 8.5/10

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Restaurant Remix 1: Tia Pol

Clockwise from top left: Blue Cheese Croquettes; Fava Bean Spread; Mushroom Carpaccio; Tres Salsas.

LOCATION: 205 10th Avenue
DATE: July 17, 2005
FOOD: Split the following: Two orders of Patatas Bravas; Deviled Eggs; Carpaccio of Mushrooms in Olive Oil; Blue Cheese Croquettes; Ham and Cheese Croquettes; Fried Chickpeas; Fava Bean and Pecorino Cheese Spread on Baguette; Tres Salsas (Pepper Spread, Olive Spread, and Lima Bean Spread) with Tomato Basted Baguette
DRINK: Glass of Red Sangria
PRICE: $38.00

TheTasteland’s first review of Tia Pol from April 3, 2005

In a city with as many dining options as New York, it’s not enough to be a flash in the pan (pun definitely intended), one more of many restaurants of the moment, here today, forgotten tomorrow. To accomplish staying power, a restaurant, once reaching a level of prestige, must develop a consistent kitchen, turning towards the technical aspect of cooking by maintaining and building off of past accomplishments. To Kill A Mockingbird is a great novel, but a great novelist Harper Lee is not. One book, like a strong two month stint for a restaurant, does not an undisputed master of an artistic field make.

Thus, three months and hoards of publicity later, that Tia Pol is still creating symphonic Spanish tapas is more than reassuring. The patatas bravas were as addictive and cheesy as in April. The ham and cheese croquettes gushed with the same overflowing indulgence, fried cheese fit for Queen Isabel. And of course, there were the fried chickpeas, crunchily delicious and as salt-ridden as the glass of margarita, but with a light snack quality reminiscent of popcorn.

However, the dishes left untried on the previous visit proved just as impressive. The blue cheese croquettes were the best of the bunch, somehow managing to be even more rewarding than their ham and cheese kin. The fattiness of the oil toned down the inherent sourness of the cheese, the two ingredients forming a balancing act fit for the a high-wire circus. Mushroom carpaccio, a nightly special, illustrated an ability of Tia Pol’s chefs to create food of a more delicate nature. Bathed in fragrant Spanish olive oil and tiny red and yellow peppers, the near translucent mushrooms blossomed like freshly caught seafood on the tongue. Tres salsas of olive, lima bean, and mixed peppers were another outstanding vegetarian option, as was the salty coarseness of the blend of fava beans and pecorino cheese in another spread. Both were hampered by baguette slices which were a bit to tough for the whipped airiness of the spreads. The only real downside of the meal though, were the paprika laden deviled eggs, bitter and over-seasoned. However, it’s much easier to overlook a misstep when it only costs three dollars and when the rest of the meal has been remarkable.

Overall, Tia Pol has continued to expand on its superb beginning. It might be too early to award it the status of New York culinary giant just yet, but it has moved beyond promise and into the realm of achieved expectations. Tia Pol shows all the signs of possessing the stuff legends are made of.

RATING: 8.7/10.0

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Restaurant 55: Babbo

Clockwise from top left: Grilled Quail, Roast Potatoes, Sorbet and Gelato Tasting, Maccheroni alla Chitarra.

LOCATION: 110 Waverly Place
DATE: July 16, 2005
FOOD: Sauteed Chickpeas (complimentary); Buffalo Mozzarella and Basil Caprese; Garganelli with Funghi Trifolati; Maccheroni alla Chitarra with Oven Dried Tomatoes, Red Chiles and Bottarga di Muggine; Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Chorizo and Green Chilis; Grilled Quail with “Scorzonero alla Romana” and Saba; Side of Roasted Potatoes; Blueberry Crostata with Coconut Gelato; Rhubarb and Sweet Potato Budino with Cinnamon Gelato; Gelato and Sorbet Tasting (including Grapefruit Sorbet, Pistachio Gelato, Hazelnut Gelato, Kiwi Sorbet)
BEVERAGE: Two Quartinos of White Wine; One Quartino of Red
PRICE: $250.00 (for two)

Bravo Mario!

As a precautionary note, I will preface this review by saying that Babbo, after just two visits, is my favorite restaurant. This review will reflect the same glowing disposition I have been left with after my two meals at Babbo.

I doubt there is better pasta made anywhere in New York, maybe even in all of the United States, than the cross-cultural noodles created at Mario Batali’s Babbo. Though it is classified as Italian and for the majority of the dishes this label of nationality is appropriate, Batali’s food draws on influences from all over Mediterranean Europe. Numerous offerings contain the fiery spiciness of Spanish cooking and the desserts have all the refinement of gourmet French. But the overwhelming tendency is indeed towards Batali’s beloved Italy and nowhere is this more evident than in the transcendental and life-altering pasta Babbo has built its reputation on.

While I haven’t had the opportunity to try the entire menu, I’m certain it’s impossible to take a wrong turn anywhere, especially with regards to the pasta. On my first visit in March, Danny, Libby and I split five pastas and each was equally amazing. The Black Spaghetti was the winner of the evening, but the Goat Cheese Tortelloni and Beef Cheek Ravioli left my body in a state of convulsing pleasure, a true food orgasm. This time, having surprised Libby with this unexpected feast, we resolved to focus on untested aspects of the menu. Of course, we still had to order the Black Spaghetti again.

Our first course was Libby’s version of gastronomical heaven – buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad, known in Italian as Caprese. During a summer “studying” in Italy, Libby developed a love of this simple, yet elegant salad that stayed with her long past Florence. While I doubted Babbo could really make a rendition of the dish all that different from everywhere else, Mario, in yet another triumph, completely out did my expectations. First of all, the salad had the appearance of a work of art, the forest green leaves sculpted with holly tree points and fanned on the plate like a sun dial. Fresh tomatoes dotted the leaves like Christmas tree ornaments. But the taste was the true marvel. Rarely does mozzarella achieve this climactic profusion. Drier than most buffalo mozzarellas, Babbo’s was still unbelievably creamy and moist. Its texture was more like the froth on a non-Starbucks cappuccino than cheese. Libby didn’t even need to speak. Her cooing spoke volumes.

But I was ready for the noodles and on this account Mario was able to take my breath away once again. The Garganelli with Funghi Trifolati was perhaps more delicate than any pasta I’ve enjoyed. The weightlessness of the butter and wine sauce, applied with restraint and complimented by fresh grated cheese, was amazing. It was the ideal pair for the chewy earthiness of the mushroom and feathery tubes. The following course brought the Black Spaghetti, which was better than I remembered. Brash chiles and piquant chorizo add a flair to the rich gloss of the squid ink spaghetti. The small shrimp add the final layer making this dish as revelatory as it is. Even Libby, a hater of all things pork, indulgently agreed with the positive assessment of the Black Spaghetti.

Going out on a limb, we also ordered the Maccheroni alla Chitarra. I was expecting Kraft but I got Keller instead. In a take off of shrimp scampi, the thick spaghetti noodles were coated in salty fish flakes and thinly sliced garlic. The taste was at once of summer at the ocean and the heartiness tomato base of winter fortitude. To be able to combine such diverse elements into one unblemished whole is a feat only a magician like Batali could achieve.

Having ignored the Secondi courses in March, Libby and I selected the grilled quail this go-round. If all roast chickens were comparable to Babbo’s quail, there would be no need for steak any longer, and Morton’s and Smith and Wollensky’s would focus less on bovine and more on aviaries. The quail possessed a succulent tenderness unmatched in other birds. The meat fell of the bone with the same proficiency Italo Calvino uses to compose his prose. The mixed greens accompanying the dish were just as redolent, but it was the side order of roast potatoes, another holdover from our meal in March that took me to another dimension. While my love of potatoes is well documented, Babbo’s surpasses all others in the category, made with an ideally crisped skin and an inside as soft as mashed potatoes.

Batali has said on "Iron Chef America" that in the past, he too often has ignored desserts. No one would be able to gather this from Babbo’s sweets. The sweet-potato and rhubarb budino set the night on fire, graced with the pliancy of crème brulee, but with the substance of a tart. But the blueberry crostata, highlighted with toasted coconut, may have ruined pies for me forever. The crust had the perfect marriage of crumble and firmness, the blueberries emphasized the fruit. It was a pie fit for arcadia and I had somehow gained admittance. One final splurge, the six miniature scoops of sorbet and gelato were the final star in this luminous universe of a meal.

(Forgive this next personal indulgence, do not continue reading if you are prone to gagging on overly sentimental protestations)

As Libby and I left Babbo, high on life, food, and love, we found ourselves at the end of our most memorable day in New York. Babbo had supplied the final energy to complete the bliss. Amazingly though, the food was all that was on our mind. Suffering through a relationship based on bi-monthly visits, our dinners usually revolve around intense conversations of future plans and past joys. But at Babbo, we focused entirely on the present and for once, not on ourselves. Reflecting upon the dinner later, we realized the majority of the meal had been spent discussing, well, the food. Babbo is that deserving, that amazing, that adjective worthy. If reservations were easier to come by, I’d eat at Babbo every night. Happiness can’t be purchased, but perfect pasta can be. Sometimes a restaurant makes an already celebratory occasion, one in which every second shared with the person you care most about it the world seems to possess the staying power of a photograph, that much more luminous. Babbo is that place. Libby is that person.

Mario, you are my hero. Bravo!

RATING: 11+/10 (I know I said this was only reserved for Per Se, but Babbo deserves this rating too)

Multitude of Drops 2: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

BOOK: The Handmaid's Tale
AUTHOR: Margaret Atwood
DATE: July 16, 2005

In the latest installment of Multitude of Drops, Libby and I read Margaret Atwood’s (review forthcoming) The Handmaid’s Tale, the future dystopia of a society in which woman are merely vessels used for procreation. To tie in with the book’s profuse thematic discussion of religion, I selected two bars, Temple Bar and Church Lounge, to play up to this thread. As we were headed to Babbo for dinner (review also coming later) and pasta and female oppression don’t really go hand in hand, the book club was for once, non-food related.

BAR: Temple Bar
LOCATION: 332 Lafayette St.
DRINK: Flower Martini (Premium Vodka, Chambord, and Elderflower); Proseco; Flirtini (Premium Vodka, Champagne, Cointreau, and Pineapple Juice) (Libby)
PRICE: $39.00

The Lafayette St. entrance to Temple Bar is deceptively unassuming. But upon opening the heavy metal door, Temple Bar reveals itself to be the opposite of ordinary. The L-shaped bar is composed of a beautiful dark wood, at once contemporarily classy and unpretentiously ornate. Scattered track lighting gives the lounge a stage quality, as it’s possible to move in and out of the dim glows like an actor performing. But while the lighting is Beckett, the vibe is Fitzgerald. Temple Bar has the feel of a 20s something speakeasy, but with the serenity of a bar no longer worried about the intrusions of prohibition authorities. For a romantic evening, I know of no better bar in the city.

The Flower Martini (yes, I admit to ordering it) was bold and delicious. Just as in the Danube cocktail (at David Bouley’s Danube), elderflower contributed an innovative sweetness to the clarity of the vodka. Followed with the bubbly and refreshing Proseco, the evening had begun perfectly. That bowls of popcorn (the favorite snack of Libby and myself) were Temple Bar’s version of bar snacks only furthered the utopian feel of a discussion centering on decidedly portentous and disconcerting literature. It might be blasphemous, but at Temple Bar, alcohol has once again become sacred.

BAR: Church Lounge
LOCATION: 2 Avenue of the Americas
DRINK: Martini with a twist of lemon; Tantric (Libby)
PRICE: $32.00

The scene is slick and trendy. As your eyes move across the seedily lit room, they search for the famous, the rumored celebrities who grace this Downtown haven. Most patrons go to Church Lounge not for the drinks, but for the climate – the see and be seen atmosphere of this bar located in the extravagant and lavish Tribeca Grand Hotel. But the lack of focus on the bar is a shame – the drinks are excellent, if overpriced. The Martini is straightforward but polished, just as a Martini should be. Libby’s “Tantric” was girly and soft, but not so sweet as to ruin the tastebuds for the evening. And the bar itself is a site to behold, the fluorescent back lit bottles promising refined intoxication.

The irony of Church Lounge is in its name, as the gaudiness of the hotel and lounge practically beg visitors to engage in some Las Vegas weekend-style forbidden act, some sin enacted in the room’s dark corners. The space itself is huge, but worth witnessing at least once. And while horror stories of Church Lounge’s confrontational service abound on the internet, during our visit, Libby and I experienced only gracious attentiveness. Though, after hearing one of the other customers exclaim, “I want everything taken care of. We have a lot more people coming, so this is my daddy’s credit card to cover everything,” as she handed her waitress the plastic, the rumored surliness of the staff might be an understandable byproduct of having to contend with a crowd who no longer realizes its not “in”.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Play 1: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

PLAY: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
WRITTEN BY: Edward Albee
DIRECTED BY: Anthony Page
CAST: Kathleen Turner (Martha), Bill Irwin (George), David Harbour (Nick), Mireille Enos (Honey)
LOCATION: Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th Street, New York, NY
DATE: July 16, 2005, Matinee Performance

Anthony Page’s direction of Edward Albee’s classic piece of American drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, chooses to focus on an interesting, if often underappreciated aspect of the play – its hilarity.

Sure the barbs Albee created for Martha and George to hurl at each other are humorous in their own right, but Page expands the text’s latent comedy, taking it to its logically calamitous and painful ends. But even as the audience’s laughter explodes, the uproar is painted with a touch of pathos. After all, we are laughing at the disintegration of the American ideal of marriage, the ideal so many of us build our lives around. Albee exposes the posturing and hypocrisy involved in all marriages. The humor is partially based on the familiarity of family bickering. We might not be watching our own family, but we certainly know one like it. Rancor and unhappiness possess the lead characters of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Page deftly draws out these elements by the classic route of linking tragedy to comedy.

Martha’s frequent comments about George’s career failure and George’s constant nagging of Martha about her alcoholism are delivered with cutting wit and illuminating irony by Turner and Irwin, respectively. The two actors are masterful, the hype surrounding their performances deserved and if possible, understated. Irwin slowly brings George out of his shell until the climatic final scene when all illusions are shattered and years of pent-up frustration finally find a release. Turner is perfect for the role of Martha, her mannish features and domineering presence an appropriate fit for Martha’s haughty yet unfulfilled life. Albee’s lines take on whole new dimensions in their hands. The viewer loses track of time, the other members of the audience, even outside concerns, watching this performance. Beyond the suspension of disbelief usually required for art, the audience becomes immersed by the play, swallowed in the act like Jonah in the belly of the whale. This is Broadway at its best.

Albee’s play still has the freshness and power to provoke that it had upon first publication in 1962. Under the instruction of Page, Turner and Irwin, and to a lesser extent, Harbour and Enos, extract all the subtle and covert themes running through the play. From the way the Cold War kept the world at peace only through violence, to the misconceptions and lies at the heart of the institution of marriage, all of Albee’s intentions are on display. But even as the ending exposes in the brightest light the problems of a society structured around greed and half-truths and an aura of thorough sadness pervades the theater, we’re left with a surprising, if somewhat superficial question to ponder:

Who knew dysfunctional marriages could be so funny?

Albee of course. And maybe even Virginia way back when. And certainly this cast. That may lead us into some murky territory, the grays a red and blue America no longer has time for. How can we laugh at something so dark? But such ambiguity might be a good thing and proves, even today Albee is relevant, his black comedy bares America’s dark side whether we’re ready for it or not. You can almost here Albee’s laughter in the audience’s chorus, his voice mockingly asking:

I’m not afraid are you?

Restaurant 54: Hummus Place

Clockwise from top left: Hummus Tahini, Health Salad, Pita Bread, Hummus Masabacha.

RESTAURANT: Hummus Place
LOCATION: 109 St. Mark’s Place
DATE: July 15, 2005
FOOD: Split the following: Hummus Tahini (with chick peas, tahini, olive oil & spices) ; Hummus Masabacha (with whole chick peas, tahini, olive oil & spices – served warm) – both with Hard-Boiled Eggs; Health Salad (tomato, cucumber, parsley, onion, olive oil & lemon juice)
PRICE: $20.00 – Courtesy of Libby

It’s the old aphorism, frequently employed by parents and technical specialists alike – do one thing and do it well. Rarely, if ever, though does a restaurant take this maxim to heart. With restaurant’s menus expanding in proportion to diner’s waistlines, for a restaurant to go against the trend and stick to one food and one food only is a bit shocking. But just as all of Wes Anderson’s films utilize a similar style to create engaging cinema, so too does Hummus Place, in the East Village, take one idea and run with it.

And that idea, obviously, is hummus. The void, Styrofoam hummus purchased at grocery stores nationwide has no relation to the type of pureed chickpeas served at Hummus Place. The tiny, Israeli owned restaurant churns out hummus that redefines the very nature of the dip. Offered in three varieties, the hummus is made fresh several times daily and is served warm, in large, soup-bowl portions. Hummus Place mines the details and traditions of its namesake dish, using Mid-East spices to take the puree back to its roots.

Having visited Hummus Place two times previously, I had spoken of its marvels to Libby on numerous occasions. A lover of all things vegetarian, Hummus Place had perked her interest. We ordered the Tahini and Masabacha, both with the requisite hard boiled eggs. The Tahini is as smooth and rich as melted chocolate, lacquering the mouth with a texture akin to warmed cream. The center of the bowl has a more refined mash applied to the chickpea and its velvet near liquidity is astonishing. The sleekness of the Tahini indicates the role of beans as a chunky and cumbersome side dish as a thing of the past.

The Masabacha on the other hand presents the chick peas in the whole. Spread throughout the otherwise serene hummus, the bold and chewy chick peas are an excellent study in contrasts, allowing the tongue to jump from one texture to the next in the same bite. A green, olive oil centers, adds a delicious subversion to the thickness of the chick peas.

Ordering the hummus with hard boiled eggs is an essential, on par with seeing the Pixies in concert or reading Cervantes in the original Spanish. Though not a combination I had had before, upon first tasting the way the slippery exterior and chalky interior of the egg interacted with the hummus, I never want to eat hummus any other way. Libby was also taken back by the surprising way the seemingly disparate ingredients complimented one another.

But as good as the hummus is, it still wouldn’t be as transcendent as it is without the warmed and puffy pitas that come with every order. These are true pillows, containing the perfect level of grain and flour to support the hummus. The freshness and simplicity of the tomato and cucumber salad was also a welcome addition to the meal, each bite practically declaring summer in its taste.

Hummus Place sets a standard other, larger and more ambitious restaurants would be wise to follow. Being able to take a run of the mill dish and make it magical is something most places can only dream of. But dreams are reality at Hummus Place. Factoring in that nothing at the restaurant is more than five dollars, Hummus Place might be the best cheap food in all of Manhattan. It certainly has my vote.

RATING: 9.0/10

Monday, July 18, 2005

Restaurant 53: Sripraphai

RESTAURANT: Sripraphai
LOCATION: 64-13 39th Ave. (Queens) Between 64th and 65th Sts
DATE: July 10, 2005
FOOD: Split the following: Crispy Watercress Salad with Chicken, Shrimp, and Squid; Pork Drunken Noodles; Sweet Sausage; String Beans with spicy sauce and shrimp; Fried Fishcakes
BEVERAGE: Split a bottle of Lychee Wine from Thailand
COST: $33.00

Don’t let the auto repair shop veneer fool you. You’re in the right place. This is the veritable home away from home for Thai food in this or any other part of the United States. Trust in the fact that your trip on the 7 train was worth the schlep. This is Sripraphai and if Thai food pleases you in even the faintest degree, you’re in for an amazing night.

A few things to remember before your meal and a few things to make sure you bring along for the feast:
1. A huge appetite – At Sripraphai, they don’t mess around. The portions are generous and the spiciness of the food makes a meal incredibly filling.
2. An open mind – Sure you’ve never had fried watercress elsewhere, but this salad, along with a litany of other unique dishes are why Sripraphai is as renowned as it is. Whatever you do, don’t order the Pad Thai.
3. A penchant for heat – When the waiter or waitress asks you how hot you want your dishes, be careful, but don’t be cautious. After all, Thai food is as influenced by peppers as Washington is by corporate interests. Be bold, just don’t be stupid and take on more than you can handle.
4. A friend…or many of them – You want to be able to split things in order to try as much as possible
5. Patience - If it’s later than 6 pm, there’s probably going to be a line, regardless of the night.

The menu is as extensive as Swann’s Way, but unlike Proust, it comes with pictures to give non-Thai diners a clue as to what to order. The list of exotic and challenging salads at Sripraphai are perhaps the most enticing category and it would be near impossible for even the most savvy and seasoned eater to not find some item previously unknown to his or her palate. On a previous visit, I ordered the Papaya salad, but was unprepared for the level of heat it packed. After a single bite, I consumed an entire glass of water. The salad was delicious, but too much for my still evolving Westernized tastebuds. Thus, on this later visit, I opted instead for the sublime and hair-raising fried watercress salad. Without Sripraphai, who would know such wondrous combinations existed? The watercress, apparently ignorant of the fact that it is a green and has no business being fried, is lightly battered and then cooked to a deep-fried perfection. If all salad greens came with the same crunchy tempura coating, kids would be begging, demanding in fact, that there parents serve salad every night. The fried watercress is rounded out by dry cashews, adding another notch of mild saltiness and delightfully chewy chicken, shrimp and squid. The trio of meats mimic the resistance of raw vegetables, seemingly inverting all notions of the conventional salad. That the salad’s spice creeps up on you with the stealth of a CIA operative not-outed by Karl Rove, is what completes the fullness, the utterly satisfying and tremendous nature of this dish.

But that’s just the beginning. Fried fishcakes, as red as bricks, are an ease-into-Thai appetizer for everyone. Though slightly rubbery, the flavor of the cakes is as fresh as the Fulton St. seafood market and a peanut vinaigrette with the intensity of a Joe Louis fist will leave your sinuses clear for days to come. Thus, with heat running around as unfettered as a lawyer at an accident, the sweet sausages were a needed mild and calming influence. As thinly sliced as the Thai basil leaves that they shared the plate with, the sausages powered through with a complexity of onion, garlic, and pork fat flavors, not unlike the more common Italian sweet sausage.

The sausage wasn’t the only cross-cultural similarity. Sripraphai’s drunken noodles are legendary. Brushed with the rich green of Thai basil, the noodles themselves are sautéed and silky. Whereas other Thai restaurants have a propensity to make these noodles as oily as a worn out shamy, Sripraphai’s are layered with meticulously portioned amounts of oil that cause no complaints of greasiness. Previously, I tried the noodles with chicken. Though the chicken version left me speechless, the pork Danny and I ordered this time was unbelievably better. The pork’s inherent fatty composition furthered the gluttonous intention of the entire dish. The only negative of the entire meal was the overly hot string beans and shrimp. Sriphraphai’s spiciness has a sophistication seldom experienced elsewhere. It’s a heat that evolves over the course of the meal. The flavors are complex and tiered, a bite promising to supply as many stages as an old-school Nintendo Mario Brothers game. The beans, however, were just hot, and didn’t layer in the same way as the drunken noodles and watercress salad. Anywhere else, the beans would have been more than expected. But at Sripraphai, they became ordinary.

One final novelty was the Lychee wine, decidely different from normal grape wine, but worht ordering all the same. Not as sweet as Longan Juice, it cooled the mouth nicely after the scalding of the peppers.

Departing, you’ll realize there’s a reason the storefront is as innocuous as it is. At Sripraphai, the attention is on the food and the food alone. As long as teleporting stays an impossibility, Sripraphai remains the best way to get to Thailand without laboring in the sultry weight of Bangkok humidity. But Sripraphai has brought the heat to this side of the Pacific. And New York is that much the better for it.

RATING: 9.5/10

Friday, July 15, 2005

Restaurant 52: Viet-Nam Banh Mi So 1

RESTAURANT: Viet-Nam Banh Mi So 1
LOCATION: 369 Broome St.
DATE: July 10, 2005
FOOD: House Banh Mi #1 with Ground Pork, Salami, and Sliced Pork.
BEVERAGE: Sugar Cane Juice
PRICE: $7.00

Reason #3,719 I love New York: The ease of attaining the porked paragon that is Banh Mi sandwiches.

Seemingly, the only good things to come out of French Imperialism are the works of Albert Camus and cross-cultural cuisine. This even applies to sandwiches, nowhere better exemplified than in the French-Vietnamese fusion of Banh Mi sandwiches. Using the ubiquitous French baguette as baseboard, the Vietnamese came up with an incredibly delicious and exotic version of the sandwich that is all their own.

Though the Banh Mi at Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches are better, those at the whole-in-the-wall takeout only grocery store/sandwich shop Banh Mi So 1 on Broome Street, are outstanding in their own right. While the freshness of the baguette is vital, making or breaking the sandwich from the get-go, it’s the Vietnamese components that really make Banh Mi special. The combination of shredded carrots and fresh ginger add an Asian flavored crunch to contrast the softness of the bread. Banh Mi So 1’s ingredients were commendably fresh, their taste’s vibrant, especially in the case of the vegetables. Long, pickle-esque cucumbers without the pickled, furthered the sharp, nutty crispness of the carrots and ginger. Tying all the fresh elements together were sprigs of cilantro, as robust and forthright as the Vietnam War era-Nixon administration was nefarious (see for instance, Kissinger’s unwarranted and vicious bombing of Cambodia). Cilantro is God’s answer to past European monarch’s desire for the perfect herb.

But it was not in the garden, but in the pen, the meatier topics that Banh Mi So 1 fell short of Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches. Whereas Nicky’s uses a complex and intricately creamy pork pate, Banh Mi So 1 instead used sliced pork and salami which caused the later sandwich to lack the cohesive dexterity of the former. The pate worked almost like a thick sauce, a poor man foie gras, melting from the warmth of the ground pork, whereas the salami and sliced pork provided too much additional salt to the already adequately spiced ground pork of Banh Mi So 1. Banh Mi So 1’s ground pork, golden-brown yet with a cunningly reserved amount of excess oil, was practically begging for a better companion in an otherwise near perfect sandwich. Batman had his Robin, Bill Clinton had his Lewinsky, Billy Pilgrim had his aliens, George Costanza had his hand – so too does ground pork on a Banh Mi need its pork pate. Just look at Scorcese, and how much his movies have slipped since he exchanged DeNiro for DiCaprio, to see what happens when perfect pairs are not kept in tact.

So perhaps start at Banh Mi So 1 and then advance to Nicky’s once the desire for Banh Mi had seeped into your blood. Banh Mi So 1 makes an excellent sandwich, though it needs to stop being so petty about its pate (zing!). In addition, the sugar cane juice, made one glass at a time, right after the customer orders, is simply one of the most unique and memorably created beverages out there. A bundle of sugar cane rods stand in the corner of Banh Mi So 1, which are then shucked, split, and pushed through an archaic looking machine in order for the cane juice to be extracted. It is amazing to watch, worth the $4.00 price just to witness the process. The taste of the juice itself is different, dramatically less sweet than expected, with earthy hints, the distant suggestion of lychee and a root bitterness swelling in a bold novelty of layered flavors. Viet-Nam Banh Mi So 1 might not offer the best Banh Mi in all of New York, but for a $7 lunch, you might not be able to find a more genuinely Vietnamese experience this side of Hanoi. It’s yet another one of New York’s seemingly endless secrets just waiting to be discovered.

RATING: 7.0/10

Restaurant 51: Kenka

Clockwise from top left: Pork Pancake with barbeque sauce; Spring Rolls; Crab Omelet; Ginger Pork.

LOCATION: 25 St. Marks Pl. (E. 8th St, East Village)
DATE: July 10, 2005
FOOD: Pork Pancake; Egg and Crab Omelet served over Rice; Miso Soup; Japanese Pickles; House Salad; Ginger Pork with Rice; Spring Rolls
BEVERAGE: Sapporo; Tap Water
PRICE: $20.00

Walk down the stairs from St. Marks Street and you enter a different world. A world with many of the characteristics of a typical Japanese restaurant, but in which everything is slightly askew. It’s a world that starts to come to life at 10 pm, but doesn’t hit full swing until after the witching hour. The aura of inebriated weekends and endless nights coalesce, loading the air thickly with drunken possibility. And throughout the glam music, the excited conversations, and beer bottles, wafts the smell of enticing Japanese food. A minute ago you were in the East Village, now you’re in Kenka, which Bloomberg should declare a separate city within this city, like Vatican City in Rome. Kenka is the Bizarro World of Japanese food in New York. And like watching Seinfeld, it’s something everyone must try.

So order a Sapporo and saddle up, for though you’ve graduated college, late night eating shouldn’t be something that stopped once you received a diploma. Kenka is a late nighter’s paradise, serving the type of dishes intoxicated stomachs beg for. And with prices indicating the Yen still hasn’t recovered, there’s every reason to order a lot. Salty and sweet Japanese pickles, at a dollar an order, provide the added sodium to further the dehydrating effects of the alcohol, sure to enhance the hangover of tomorrow’s morn. But they’re worth it, crunchy and addictive. In lieu of French fries or another donor of craved for grease, the spring rolls were a nimble adaptation, filled with vegetables and adequately satisfying. Ordering one of the house special entrees entitles you to both an excellent, if traditional Miso soup and a lettuce salad coated in a sickening amount of ginger dressing, which if used in more controlled quantities, might have been pleasant. As it was, the dressing made the lettuce limp and soggy, neither of which sounds appropriate for a body craving bold and greasy tastes.

Luckily, the salad is an afterthought, the main dishes the Murikami imagination of the experience. Even the most casual viewer of Iron Chef will notice Chef’s Masaharu Morimoto’s love of thin Japanese omelets, but few normal sushi-dominant restaurants offer the crepe-like eggs. Kenka is an exception and their omelet, though it would be unappealing as a breakfast food, is simply marvelous for a post-midnight feast. Loaded with enough crab to keep Maryland’s crabbing industry in business for years to come, everything about the omelet flashed with the same fluorescence as Tokyo’s neon signs. Steamed white rice contributed a wholesomely grainy base, to contrast the feathery egg and crab mixture placed on top. Perhaps it was the alcohol, but one almost expected the omelet to scream, in the words of the band Franz Ferdinand, “Ich Heise Super Fantastic”. Oddly, the eggs remained silent.

Silence was not a problem, however, for the ginger pork. Brash and forceful, the flavor of the ginger flirted with the perfectly browned pork like a university coed attempting to solicit an A from a professor. In appearance, this pork seemed like something you’d find at a Chinese restaurant, but the splendid layering of ginger with the pork fat, made this a distinctly Kenka-Japanese wonder.

The pork pancake was less Tokyo, more Texas. With the same level of reserve and nuance you’d expect to find in a Bush State of the Union Address, the egg based pancake was slathered in a bum steer sized quantity of American barbeque sauce. Barbeque sauce?!!!! On a Japanese pancake?!!! That’s right, barbeque sauce, and far too much of it. For the rest of the pork pancake was a supple study in contrasts, the delicate nature of the pancake and crunchy fish flakes responding well to the weight of the meat. But the barbeque sauce, like other things from Texas, invaded all else around it, overwhelming and finally turning the dish to saccharine failure. While it’s outstanding that Kenka is willing to take risks and remodel Japanese cuisine, it shouldn’t forget the austerity and reserved preparation of its heritage.

If all innovation requires a bit of lunacy to succeed, Kenka does to Japanese food what Einstein did to Newton’s Laws. Kenka is your crazy uncle, the guy who knows he’s too old to be hitting on 20-something girls, but who does it anyway, the guy who you know you shouldn’t encourage, but the spectacle he provides is so entertaining, you keep volunteering your friends as test cases for his “game” anyway. Kenka serves Japanese food seemingly prepared by chefs as drunk on novelty as the majority of NYU students, East Village hipsters, and misplaced Yuppies who make up the restaurant’s clientele are on Beam and Cokes. Nothing is as it seems. If Willy Wonka made sushi and ramen instead of candy, Kenka would be his laboratory. Though nothing at Kenka evenly remotely resembles an Oompaloopah, the meal does end with a trip to the cotton candy machine by Kenka’s door, one more carnival aspect for the night, the logical conclusion to the fun and irresponsibility felt while eating.

RATING: 7.3/10

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Tour 4: The Grape Escape

In which Rockefeller sets out in one evening to have a glass at two restaurants and two wine bars highly reputed for their exemplary collections, attempts to refine his pathetically adolescent sensibility for the nectar of the gods, and tries to accrue an understanding of the subtle variations between vintages, all the while ignoring the effects of these spirits in order to stay upright throughout the adventure.

LOCATION: 43 East 20th St.
WINE: E. Pira & Figli – Dolcetto d’Alba ‘Chiara Boschis’ – Piedmont, Italy 2003
PRICE: $11.50

In which Rockefeller, his youthful exuberance in stark contrast to the geriatric society assembled in Veritas at 6:30 pm on a Saturday, enjoys a deliciously rich and full-bodied Italian red from chef Scott Bryan’s extensive cellar containing over 100,000 bottles, remarks on the superb lack of acidity in the wine, and studies the Veritas wine menu which contains numerous famous individuals’ quotes on wine, including one from the Beastie Boys.

LOCATION: 24 5th Avenue
WINE: Two 3 oz glasses – 1: Vouray Brut NV Champalou – Loire, France; 2: Rose de Loire 2004, Chateau Soucherie – Loire, France
PRICE: $11.50

In which Rockefeller finds a place at the bar of Cru run by “it-chef” Shea Gallante, is pleased to find the wine menu of over 65,000 Bottles allows for 3 oz tastings from which he selects a remarkabe uplift of effervescence in the form of the Vouray Brut of Loire, but is then underwhelmed by a tasteless, bland, yet fragrant Rose from the same region.

LOCATION: 175 2nd Ave
WINE: Antonelli 2003 (Umbria) – full bodied, with good minarlity and an almond quality
PRICE: $10.00

In which Rockefeller, now slightly inebriated, walks across town to the trendy Bar Veloce (located directly across the street from Cacio e Pepe), and again partakes in an aromatic and nutty Italian wine, this time white in color, which caters to his preference of dry wines perfectly, though he wonders if the bar’s design isn’t trying a bit too hard to be chic, especially since one of the best aspects of wine is the reserved tradition of its craft.

LOCATION: 215 E 4th St.
WINE: Passito di Pantelleria - Minardi, Sicily
PRICE: $13.00

In which Rockefeller, now bordering on tipsy, marvels at In Vino’s rustic layout, but more importantly, the sublime nature of his red dessert wine, surprisingly mild and temperately sweet, exhibiting the same full-bodied character he found so fantastic in the Dolcetto at Veritas, and the night ends with his realization that the adage “In Vino Veritas” is true, and his quest has truly come full circle.

Tour 1: Dumpling World Tour
Tour 2: Vintage Bar Crawl
Tour 3: Pizza World Tour

Restaurant 50: World Tong

Row 1: Tofu Skin Rolls, Shrimp Dumplings, Seaweed Balls; Row 2: Shriimp and Eggplant, Noodles Stuffed with Shrimp, Peanut Noodles; Row 3: Fried Fish, Coconut Rolls, Fried Rice Balls.

LOCATION: 18th Ave and 62nd Street in Bensonhurt, Brooklyn
DATE: July 9, 2005
FOOD: Dim Sum, including the following – Fried Tofu Skins with Vegetables; Shrimp Dumplings; Eggplant with Fried Shrimp; Seaweed Stuffed Balls; Sausage Rolls; Wide Noodles Stuffed with Shrimp; Shrimp and Vegetable Dumplings; Pork and Chive Triangle Dumplings; Wide Noodles with Peanut Sauce; Fried Fish with White Dipping Sauce; Mango Fish; Coconut Rolls.
BEVERAGE: House Chrysanthemum Tea; Tap Water
PRICE: $27.00

Ah, the pleasures of Dim Sum. There’s nothing like waking up early (as in 10 o’clock) on a Saturday and venturing out to Brooklyn for what many posts on aver is the best Dim Sum anywhere in New York. What makes the experience even more special, is that I was popping my Dim Sum cherry. If all first times were as memorable as my visit to World Tong, no one would wait until marriage. Hell, they wouldn’t even make it until high school.

World Tong’s storefront in Bensonhurst gives no sign of the delights held within. Perhaps I expected to see a gaudy placard screaming “Best Dim Sum West of the Yellow River”, but there wasn’t even the slightest indication the owners of World Tong are aware of it’s “foodie-cred”. Walking in the door, it’s immediately apparent World Tong needs no advertisement. At 11:30 on Saturday, it was packed with Chinese faces, so crowded that parties had to share tables. Like my experiences at Himalayan Yak and Tangra Masala, that Danny and I were the only Caucasians in the room, only indicated the good things to come.

The atmosphere is frenetic and loud, but not alienating. While there was a wait to be seated during our entire meal, it never lasted for longer than 15 minutes. The countless waiters attentively refilled our water glasses and cleared our table with regularity. A quiet order pulsated beneath the chaotic veneer.

Carts emerged from the kitchen loaded with small plates of Chinese appetizers, pushed by matronly women. We began our Oriental orgy with vegetables wrapped in tofu skins. Akin to spring rolls, the skins were light and un-oily, the Worchester sauce used for dipping, adding a surprising kick. But the shrimp dumplings we selected next were truly outstanding. The shrimp were beautifully fresh and the rose bud shaped dumplings contained the perfect degree of supple chew. Delicate, yet entirely satisfying, these were some of the best Chinese dumplings to be had anywhere.

But, amazingly, they weren’t even the best dumplings of the feast. The pork and chive dumplings, filled with Chinese greens, were sumptuously devoid of grease, the greens creating a clean taste, leaving the mouth salivating for more. But, though the pork was delicious, World Tong truly excelled at all things shrimp. Tempura battered shrimp, crisp and indulgently fried, made up for the mushy and bland slices of eggplant they were sandwiched in-between. Wide, lasagna-esque rice noodles, stuffed with petite whole shrimps were quietly pleasing and restrained, reminiscent of the Vietnamese ravioli at Nah Trang. Weightless and with the aesthetic appeal of a blank canvas, the stuffed noodles were covertly filling. The same noodles popped up in another dish as well, covered in a Thai influenced peanut sauce that was a tad too mild, lacking the complex spicing of Thai peanut blends.

I learned as the meal progressed that like a married man tempted to cheat, one shouldn’t indulge in everything that catches the eye. The food kept coming and my stomach filled before I was able to try everything I desired. One misstep occurred with the sausage rolls, which were overly salted and tasted and looked like a clogged artery. But a tempura battered white fish (Tilapia, I believe) immediately recovered World Tong’s eminence. Though seriously battered, the fish was still the most prominent flavor, minute squares of red and green pepper adding a point of sophistication to the whole proceedings. The fish came with a white sauce which is best avoided, a white mess with the substance of coalesced heavy cream and mayonnaise.

Unexpectedly, World Tong’s also had a wide variety of desserts. And though I ruined my stomach’s capacity by shoveling in one last savory course of pureed rice and seaweed balls with the texture of Matzoh, I still enjoyed the sweets. A sparkling and creative mango pudding in the shape of a fish was thoroughly fruity and revitalizing. And sushi style rolls stuffed with a coconut cream finished the meal with a tropical virtuosity.

12 hours after World Tong, I was still full, the lengthy period of satiation yet another new experience for an eater whose stomach usually knows no limits. However, for once, I was joyous in my gluttony, as World Tong’s Dim Sum provided so many great options, I’d rather have tried too much, than have left wondering what I’d missed. My meal at World Tong has left me with a longing for future Saturday gorging, another chance to start my weekend with a bright sum.

RATING: 8.1/10