Monday, December 17, 2007

Ah, Rome: Part 2

Le Mani in Pasta
Via Dei Genovesi, 37
00153 Roma (RM), Italy
+39 06 5816017

You may recall that I traveled to the fair city of Rome last month and did some serious eating and drinking while I was there. The world class art and architecture was inspiring of course, but the food was the organizing force behind our trip.

We had decided to go to Rome in the early summer, so this left four months lead time to plan, obsess, and plan and obsess some more about where we would eat during those eight days. As the time for the trip neared, I became noticeably less crazed—less hell-bent on finding “perfect places” to have meals and just content that we could use the information I already had to discover little gems along the way. And find them we did! The most exciting find was a small restaurant in Trastevere that I had read about a couple months prior in a blog I found by googling “favorite restaurant in Rome”. I am so grateful that I paid attention to the blogger who expounded upon the virtues of Le Mani in Pasta. It is a small, unassuming restaurant half way down an alley, with a tiny kitchen that is visible through a wall of glass.

We were only two days into our Roman meals at this point, but we were both already feeling the full weight of eating pasta twice a day. I am helpless in the face of truly wonderful tagliatelle, and almost weak in the knees at an exceptional stuffed tortelli. We were delighted to find that Le Mani in Pasta actually specializes in seafood as well as pasta and we had a lovely, balanced meal of simply prepared, exquisitely fresh, fish. We started out with a dish that I was hesitant to order at first, but am SO GLAD that I did. The sea bass carpaccio with shaved black truffles, lightly dressed with lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil, was one of the more refreshing and original dishes I can remember having this year. The fish is very mild, but with a slight briny flavor that is offset beautifully by the paper thin earthy black truffles. It was the height of truffle season so we were fortunate to have them in a few dishes (mostly pasta dishes), but this was far and away the most simple and surprising incarnation. The fresh lemon juice squeezed on top of the dish was a great counterpoint to the truffles as well, as was the creamy butter that we smeared on the thin toast that came with the carpaccio.

We followed this with another great dish, though it did not have the jaw-dropping effect of the first. The fresh spaghetti with prawns and Manila clams in a saffron tomato broth was delicious. It had the right balance of brininess and warm spices and was topped with a cured fish roe called bottarga that added to the depth of flavor.

We followed it with one of the simplest dishes of the week, but certainly one of best—flattened squid, langoustines, and pawns all grilled with olive oil and served with a wedge of lemon and flat-leaf parsley. It was absolutely exactly what I wanted.

In fact, we were so taken with our meal that I decided to make reservations for a few days later to ensure that we would be able to have the seabass carpaccio again. I will try to have a favorite dish as many times as possible if I feel that my chances to experience it are running out. Actually, I think I showed great restraint in only returning once. Our second visit was just as great as the first. We started with the carpaccio, but upon seeing what our Italian neighbors ordered, I wished I had tried the fish antipasti, which looked like a sashimi plate with a radicchio salad in the center—incredibly colorful! We then had simple grilled turbot (a Mediterranean white fish) served with lemon and a radicchio and arugula salad.

This time, we saved room for their apple crepes with a caramel sauce and mascarpone gelato. They were delicious, but somehow they were not as exciting as the main courses—the dessert felt more complicated and fussy somehow. I did manage to finish every bite as I have a weak spot for caramel in any form and this caramel had a deep amber flavor that permeated the light and airy crepes. As the waiter handed us the bill and gave me kisses on both cheeks (we were now “regulars” after coming twice in one week), I realized just how sad I would be to leave Rome. We should all be so lucky to have such a neighborhood restaurant.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ah, Rome: Part 1

We spent eight full days in that magnificent, overwhelming, frustrating, epic city and I must confess that I am still quite smitten. Granted, I am not as head over heels as I was when I first spent significant time there at the young age of 23, but I am still amazed by the energy, the people, the architecture and finally, the food of Rome.

We had a very different approach to our visit than many people (including me!) often have when they venture overseas. I think so often we are crazed with the manic desire to see, absorb, and consume as much as we possibly can before returning to our “normal” lives. In that process, figuring out what it means to live like a native becomes more and more elusive. This time, I decided that it would be different. After many years in New York, I was getting weary of the city and needed a break. I realized in hindsight, that Rome might have not been the most ideal choice, but we decided to do whatever we could to change the pace of our lives while we were there.

We rented the apartment of a friend (who is lucky enough to live in Brooklyn half the year and Rome for the remainder) and would wake up blissfully late around 10 a.m., meander around the house like lazy cats before gathering our things and heading out around 11. We would then walk two blocks to the venerable Castroni’s, which has been in business since 1932 and where they serve a smorgasbord of food from around the world. They are particularly well-known for their incredible selection of candy and for their thick, creamy cappuccinos. We would order one each and one of their beautiful pastries covered in powered sugar and I somehow felt by donning these powdered sugar and foam mustaches that we were in for a great day.

At that point, we would wander around, maybe into a church and then seek out our lunch restaurant, where we would proceed to have a three course meal. Upon finishing we usually walked around some more, perhaps saw some incredible art, and then went home to rest before setting out for our second three course meal of the day. I won’t lie to you, it was hard work, but those of us devoted to relaxing, eating an inordinate amount of amazing food, and drinking more than a bottle of wine a day are more than up for the challenge. I will leave you with a couple images from our time in Rome and promise to write in more detail about the outstanding food we had while we were there, but for now, I will throw down the gauntlet and challenge all of you to eat two separate three course meals in one day and not worry too much about all of the things you are not seeing or experiencing and instead just focus on the plate in front of you!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Lucali's Pizza

575 Henry St, Brooklyn, NY

Once there was a guy, we’ll call him “Pete,” who had spoke so fervently about the pizza at Sam’s, an old-school pizza joint in Carroll Gardens, that we just had to try it. He had even gone so far as to say that it was superior to the pizza at our beloved Grimaldi’s (the renowned pizzeria under the Brooklyn bridge). As he expounded upon the virtues of Sam’s pizza, I remembered that a couple years before a co-worker of mine had been similarly exuberant. So, one day last summer we went to Sam’s and had some of the most oily, mediocre, pizza I have had in years.
Just a few weeks ago, I ran into the co-worker who had talked Sam’s up years before. He hung his head in shame upon hearing our reactions to their pizza and asked us to consider trying his new favorite pizza place around the corner from his apartment, Lucali’s on Henry street. His description of a tiny old-world pizza joint that only stays open from “6-until they run out of pizza” was enough to charm me into trying it last week.

I am shamelessly devoted to pizza and I use any excuse to try a new one. Of my many food fixations, pizza is at the top of the list. Like most New Yorkers, I become ridiculously excited in the face of a beautiful pie.
We went on a Thursday and stopped at Smith and Vine ( to pick up a bottle of wine, as I had read that there aren’t any alcoholic beverages on the menu (the corkage fee is $4). We chose a lovely Spanish wine, Bodegas Piqueras ($8), which complemented the pizza incredibly well. We arrived around 6:30 and there was a ten minute wait for a table for two. I love seeing restaurants fill up before seven, as it not only harkens back to my Mid-Western upbringing where people eat dinner around 6, but also speaks to the devotion of the patrons who arrive early by NYC standards.

We waited on a bench that faced the street, and I have to say, I was already charmed by the surrounding- no matter how long I have been in New York, I am still a sucker for tiny restaurants on mostly residential blocks. I can still remember when I first discovered Chez Michallet (now The Little Owl) on Bedford street—I am convinced that it was the location and not the food that made it one of my favorite places.
The interior of Lucali’s is just as charming as the outside, and quite unique with a completely open kitchen. It felt like we were eating in a home kitchen—you can literally see everything - from the kneading of the dough to the washing of the dishes. The menu features calzones ($10) and of course, pizza ($19). The service was very friendly and efficient, and even though there were people waiting for our table, they let us finish our bottle of wine.
My normal pizza-eating practice is to gobble down as much as I can, as fast as I can—I think it’s the magical combination of the crust, cheese, and sauce that makes me throw my savoring techniques out the window. But for some reason, at Lucali’s, I took a good hour and a half to go through my half of the pizza. The pizza came out about ten minutes after we ordered it – isn’t it lovely?

The crust was a little floppy on our first visit, but on the second visit it was chewy, and still soft—with just the right amount of give. I am always a sucker for a wonderful tomato sauce and Mark Lacono has perfected a slightly sweet, fresh, balanced wonder of a sauce. The cheese is also great, with just the right amount of salt. Nothing upsets me more than having to salt a pizza, as I did at Totonno’s on our most recent visit. What was most surprising about the first pizza was that it was absolutely covered in basil (complementary, but you need to request it). While this was delightful for us, you might want to forgo the basil if you are not crazy about it. We tried both the pepperoni and the portabello mushrooms as toppings. I had some qualms about portabellos being too meaty and cumbersome as a pizza topping, but Lacano sliced them paper thin so that they hit just the right note. We also tried the calzone on one of our visits and it was utterly delicious. I had misgivings about ordering a calzone—the idea of a thick doughy stuffed calzone always seems to pale in comparison to the lure of a light balanced pizza. The calzone was not too thick and had a great char on the crust—the insides were bursting with creamy ricotta and mozzarella, along with pepperoni, mushrooms, and garlic. I would recommend ordering the small calzone as a starter if you just have 2-3 people, and the large for 4 or more people.

One of my only complaints was the lack of anything green on the menu—I think a simple mixed arugula salad would be a lovely counterpoint to all of the bread and cheese. But if this is my only complaint, I must be in the passionate throes of a new relationship with Lucali’s.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Bun Soho

143 Grand Street, near Lafayette St

Last Friday night, the clichéd expression “don’t believe everything you read” took on a new importance for me. All week long I had coveted the online menu for a new Vietnamese small-plates restaurant named Bun Soho — in fact, this was the most excited I had been by a menu in quite awhile. I often find that places seem to be doing variations of the same dishes (i.e. stuffed meatballs, black cod with miso, fish wrapped in pork, heirlooms salads depending on season, etc.) This is not to say that I don’t enjoy these dishes, but rather than I have been yearning for something out of the box — a menu that might inspire me to go down to Chinatown on a rainy evening for example. I had sent the innovative menu to my friend Jeena, and after much talk about the pig brain ravoli, I was able to reel her in to going there for dinner last week.

New York Magazine, amongst others, had mentioned that Bun opened on October 22nd. After getting soaking wet on our walk from the subway, we walked into the restaurant to find the manager sitting at one of the tables. He told us that they would not actually be open until the following Thursday, November 1st. After learning that we had traveled a great distance in inclement weather (ok, we actually came from the west village), the manager offered us a glass of wine. My boyfriend joined us a few minutes later and was also poured a glass. We were already amazed by the welcome we were receiving when the chef himself came out with a plate of delicious wild boar blood sausages, which were served with a ginger apple puree and pomegranate syrup. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality, and if that weren’t enough, chef Michael Bao Huynh stayed to chat with us for the better part of an hour about his career and his new place.

Huynh, the son of an architect and restaurateur, is also known as "The Architect Chef" for his attention to the design of each of his restaurants. He is the chef/partner of Mai House in Tribeca as well as Bun. The restaurant’s design is both sleek and inviting, and includes a standing section at the bar where the guests can watch his wife Thao Nguyen make rice noodle dishes or the “bun” portion of the menu. Huynh will attend to the innovative Vietnamese tapas closer to the main bar. When pressed to reveal his favorite dishes, Huynh mentioned the Mind of Pork Ravoli with golden chives, bottarga, and lemongrass prawn coral sauce ($10) and the Nem of Duck and foie gras with pineapple relish, lettuce wrap, anchovy sauce ($12). With an exciting menu and such a warm welcome, I am bound to return soon.

We are off to Rome-- I am sure to post about this when I return!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Shake Shack

Southeast corner of Madison Square Park, near Madison Ave. and E.23rd St.

Of all Danny Meyer’s acclaimed restaurants (some I have been to and some I have not) I think I will always remain loyal to the Shake Shack. Not that the other restaurants don’t trump the Shack in terms of elegance, but really, does any of that matter in the face of the perfect hamburger? Of course, I realize I have just placed myself wide open for the ongoing debate as to who has the best burger in NYC, but I frankly am ready for the challenge. As I have already demonstrated in my Spotted Pig review , I am not opposed to thicker burgers (in particular, those cooked medium rare and slathered in Roquefort cheese), but when it comes right down to it, I am a girl who likes to fit the entire burger in her mouth, and comfortably at that.

Yes, it is true—like many Americans, I started my love affair with hamburgers at the often scorned McDonalds franchise, but with all that salt and the ingenious toys that accompanied the meal—can you really blame me? (I am still searching for those collectors glasses from The Great Muppet Caper circa 1981). As a teenager, I moved on to diners (always a bit too inconsistent for my adolescent taste buds) and the new (at the time) franchise of In-N-Out burger. I thought I had finally found my burger haven with the grilled onions, crispy lettuce, mostly ripe tomatoes, the secret mayonnaise based sauce, and just the delightful size of it—big enough to eat all of the layers at once. Being able to experience all of the flavors of a single dish at once is somewhat paramount to me—I think that this is most often where all of the magic happens, the chemistry of all the ingredients coming together in one bite.

My love of In-N-Out has been tested by the culinary quest to locate my favorite burger in the city. After becoming smitten with the Shackburger ($4.75 for a single), I have not been able to feel the same way about In-N-Out. I first discovered the Shake Shack several years ago with Dave Freedenberg of Famous Fat Dave’s Five Borough Eating Tour. It was the perfect end to a day long extravaganza of cheesecake, Italian rice balls, Orange Julius (!), soul food, whitefish, and Patsy’s pizza. Of the many incredible tastes we had that day, my first Shackburger left the most enduring impression.

Meyer’s burger has a remarkably similar concept to that of In-N-Out -down to the useful paper wrapping that covers half the burger, keeping it from falling apart. This isn’t really a concern with a burger of this type — it is simply constructed and flies in the face of fancy, over the top burgers (think Daniel Boulud’s Kobe beef and foie gras burger at db Bistro Moderne). Not to say that it isn’t made with incredible ingredients- it is a mix of freshly ground sirloin and brisket along with ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato, and American cheese. It is grilled just enough so that it has a crisp slightly chewy edge and is amazingly able to retain the full flavor of the beef without being cooked a bit bloody as with the other hamburgers I have grown to love in NYC.

I am also a fan of their crinkle-cut fries($2.50), and this is where Shack Shack leaves In-N-Out in the dust—their fries are not only edible (unlike the cardboardesque fries at In-N-Out), but are incredibly flavorful. Though the fries are not the burger’s main competition for star of the shack—that honor falls to the incredible thick as can be shakes made with delicious frozen custard. If you want something to satisfy the most decadent sweet tooth urge you are ever likely to have, one of the contenders should be the caramel shake ($5.25). The shake is made with the richest dulce de leche (a Latin-American concoction of caramel and sweet cream) and frozen vanilla custard, and is magnificent. All this comes at the price of a very long wait, even at off hours—which is why their live Shack cam should be consulted before heading over.

Be sure to go soon-- it closes for the winter in mid-December!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Anniversary Dinner

One of my friends recently asked me for advice on where to go for her anniversary dinner:

“Hi Juree, You've been a constant source of never fail restaurant suggestions for me - most recently your pick of Home restaurant in the village was superb! We devoured the salami and cheese appetizer and very nearly ordered a second one. We figured we should give the entrees a fair shot too. An all around good pick.
So here's my new challenge for you: my boyfriend and I have a one-year anniversary coming up. What's a good romantic place to celebrate a big occasion, but that won't leave us broke for the next year to come?”

I have the added benefit of knowing what Meredith’s general tastes and predispositions are (like not being willing to go to Brooklyn!), but for anyone else interested in a recommendation, please write a few more details about what you are looking to spend, what atmosphere you want, etc.

That being said, I have a couple of places that I thought Meredith would love.

First, I do have to mention The Little Owl again—A romantic restaurant if there ever was one. Tiny, wonderful lighting, and the food is incredible and nuanced American Mediterranean. You should definitely start with the Meatball Sliders appetizer—they are sweet, savory and a great starter for meat lovers. The last time I went I ordered the pork chop with parmesan butter beans and wild dandelion and it was one of the most delicious pieces of pork I have had this year!

Be sure to make reservations as soon as possible—because it is so small, it can be hard to get in.

90 Bedford St at Grove St, 212-741-4695

Gramercy Tavern—I just went here for the first time in many years and I will definitely be posting on it soon. It is a stellar restaurant and certainly deserves all of the accolades it receives year after year. The key to not breaking the bank is to make reservations at the tavern, not in the dining room. Nothing on the tavern’s menu is over $22, with the majority of the entrees under $20. The corn soup with oyster mushrooms and bacon is simply amazing—you may want to bathe in it, it is that good. The stuffed meatball with Fontina cheese, potato purée and onion marmalade is also delicious, but you really can’t go wrong here. It is elegant and cozy at the same time and represents what is best about classic New York restaurants.

42 E 20th St, between Bway & Park Ave S, 212-477-0777

Knowing that Meredith and her boyfriend are big meat eaters, I was tempted to recommend one of the old-school NYC steakhouses, like Sparks or Keens, for them to try, but I think something a little more unique is in order here. Now I have not actually been to this restaurant, but it has been on my list for months now. Resto is a classic Belgian bistro and it looks fantastic. It is all about meat (and perhaps some beer for Steve and wine for Meredith)—and fun. You should definitely check out Frank Bruni’s review here and know that if you do go, this will be much more on the “fun, raucous” side than a classically romantic restaurant like the previous two suggestions. They don’t take reservations, but it should not be a problem if you arrive by 6 -7 pm.

111 E 29th St, At Park & Lexington Ave, 212-685-5585

I can’t wait to hear what Meredith decides upon !

Sunday, October 21, 2007

For the Love of Pickles

I am probably one of the many perplexed people who cannot quite fathom the logic or origins of their particular food cravings, but I was especially bewildered that on a very cold and rainy summer day I could think of nothing but pickles. I had been hunting for the perfect recipe—envisioning thick pink pickled red onion slices, or delicate farm grown carrots tightly packed in a jar with suspended chilies and garlic cloves. I marvel at the one tracked determination I have in these moments, as I am often thinking about 10 different things at once. Why on such a cool day would I be obsessed with pickles and their brine, and not a warm mushroom soup or a bowl full of little necked clams in wine and brothy butter? Or even my lunch that day-- a delightful makeshift corn and black bean salad with cilantro and red bell pepper? No, I was determined. Bound and determined to make pickles.

Sadly, it had been a couple of years since I ventured into the pickle-making arena, so I was thrilled to return. I remembered it as a painless process and sure enough, it was just a matter of pouring the boiling concoction of water, vinegar, and spices over the chosen pickling victim. A few months ago, we were eating at David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar and I came across some of the more innovative pickles I have ever had—the pickle bowl was full of seasonal spring bounty: asparagus, green onion, cantaloupe, fresh water chestnuts, cauliflower, golden beets, lychee, and of course, traditional cabbage kimchi. The pickling brine was a bit sweet and salty and Chang has been kind enough to give us his sweet and sour recipe, which I will most certainly try sometime in the near future. Fortunately, I also discovered a recipe for pickled red onions that looks terrific from one of my favorite food bloggers, Orangette (a.k.a Molly Wizenberg). The recipe was adapted from the Zuni Café cookbook, and while I did want to attempt the original recipe, at that moment I wanted my pickles quickly, meaning I did not want to cool my onions after brining three times(!). Fortunately, she recommended a variation that I tried with great success which does not require a time-consuming cooling process. Instead, you boil the brine and stir in the onions after removing them from the heat. It was ridiculously easy. I made them for the first time for my friend’s birthday (risky, I know…) and they turned out to be one of the easiest and best things I made all summer. They were amazing with the Indian food I made the next night, incredible in a quesadilla I made the next day (ok, I did save some for myself) and I even convinced my mom to make them for a recent trip home. I had them with baguette and paté and also with a thick slice of cheddar. I am utterly convinced that they would be great on everything- what an amazing discovery!

Adapted from Orangette’s Quick Pickled Red Onions

2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
4-5 sprigs of fresh thyme (or 1 tsp dried thyme)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
2-3 black peppercorns
2 medium red onions

Combine the first 7 ingredients in a medium saucepan, and place over medium heat.
Heat the brine while you peel and trim the onions, and cut them in full circles (half moons are fine too). Try to keep your slices as uniform as possible and no thicker than ¼ an inch thick.

When the brine boils, add the onion slices all at once, and stir to combine. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let stand for 25-30 minutes.
Once the onions have cooled, pour them and their brine into jars with tight-fitting lids, and store in the refrigerator. Unlike other types, these quick pickles are ready to be eaten as soon as they are cold.

These pickles will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.


From time to time, I will feature some of your queries here in hopes that my answers might provide some advice as to where to eat in New York (or San Francisco, or Kansas City).

“Juree, I've loved reading the blog for the past couple of weeks. Keep up the great work! My wife and I are coming into the city next month and we're wondering if you had any suggestions for a restaurant in Manhattan? We were thinking something a little more formal than Tia Pol or The Spotted Pig but in the same area. Thanks for any suggestions and keep up the great work!


Mike, Thanks for the kind words! I have to admit that I am VERY partial to the lower west side of Manhattan, so I could suggest quite a few places. I will warn you however, that I am not a big fan of formal places – I tend to love the small intimate places and I highly recommend the following:

The first one that is on the formal side is a fun art deco old school bar and restaurant called Employees Only. They have absolutely exquisite cocktails and they cure many of their alcohols in-house, like their lavender scented gin. The food is very solid—they are known for simple food like the charcuterie plate or raw oysters. The drinks are the real star here.
510 Hudson Street (near Christopher Street), 212 242-3021

One of my favorite restaurants in this area is a small intimate American eclectic restaurant called The Little Owl. It is a gem of a place—very carefully and elegantly prepared food and a very romantic setting. Just be sure to make reservations as soon as possible.
90 Bedford Street (corner of Bedford and Grove),212-741-4695

Okay, because you mentioned formal I am going to go ahead and suggest a tried and true favorite—The Union Square Café. It is a classic, elegant New York institution. The food is almost always impeccable. I love their pasta appetizers and their tuna tartare in particular. I also think it would be fun to sit up at the bar if it is just the two of you.
21 E 16th St (between 5th Ave & Union Sq West), 212-243-4020

Have a great trip and let me know where you end up going!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Momofuku Ssam Bar

207 Second Ave.(at 13th street), New York, NY

I wanted to love David Chang's Ssam bar… really I did.

I’ve been smitten with him ever since I first read about his desire to bring his Korean background to the forefront of his cooking. I’ve greedily read his recipes for seasonal pickles and have heard marvelous tales about his Bo Ssäm, which some have claimed as the most succulent meat ever to pass their lips. Chang decided to make pork butt, a cut of meat too often ignored in upscale American restaurants, the star of his new place by creating a dish so decadent that you have to order it ahead of time and with a group of several friends. The bo ssam meal($165) serves eight to ten people and includes a whole, slow-roasted pork butt, a dozen oysters, and a variety of different banchan (Korean side dishes). Chang rubs the pork butt with brown sugar and salt, and slow-roasts it for eight hours until it is so tender that it’s falling apart. I have not tried the pork butt, but I have already started scheming to try and find a way to round up 8 shameless meat eaters amongst my friends and acquaintances, or better yet try to make it at home.

In the past, I’ve made several trips to Momofuku noodle bar, which made me even more smitten with Chang and his cooking. I thought that his plate of seasonal pickles were a revelation (though I am an admitted pickle-lover)--a veritable montage of colors - crisp tart lychees, water chestnuts, cantaloupe, celery, onion, celery root, golden beets, and my beloved kimchi.

Note for the Reader:
Yes, it is true—I absolutely adore kimchi. In all its stinky, garlicky
glory. I have been known to stash it in a Tupperware container and bring it to work, much to the chagrin of my fellow subway riders. I love it just with rice, in tofu stews (jigaes), wrapped in roasted seaweed, and I particularly fancy some with ramen and udon soups. I particularly love kkakdugi (깍두기) which is a kimchi made with cubed radishes, and oh-ee so-bae-gi (오이소배기) which is a stuffed cucumber kimchi. I actually used to day-dream about how to make my own and then soon moved on to wanting my own kimchi refrigerator. I think I have revealed too much, but suffice to say, I am pretty much a goner when it comes to anything with kimchi. However, in Chang’s seasonal pickle plate I thought the pickles outshined their traditional Korean counterpart. His pickles are the perfect balance of sweet and sour, which creates a delightful synergy amongst the motley assortment of fruits and vegetables on the plate.

I am also a fan of the steamed pork buns, which I thought were unique and delightful, if not at all traditional. The pork belly just melts in your mouth and makes me rethink my old habit of always crisping that cut of meat . Chang is not at all apologetic about his self-professed "overpriced, overrated", vegetarian unfriendly food, which of course is part of his charm.

I sadly now have to admit that I was under-whelmed by my first and only experience at Ssam Bar. The space at Ssam Bar is much roomier and seems like it would be less of a wait on a busy night than Momofuku with its tiny, rib squeezing space. I‘m someone who likes to get to busy restaurants on the early side so that I can watch as they come to life, and one of the added benefits is receiving the full attention of the wait staff. Our server was fun, irreverent about most everything except the food, and extremely helpful when we asked for his recommendations. We chose the poached Vietnamese shrimp in a cantaloupe puree with cucumbers, fresh mint and coriander. It turns out that I liked the dish on paper much better, as the flavors just did not come together in the clean "pop" that I had envisioned. Although, it did make me want to attempt poaching shrimp -- the texture was incredibly velvety and rich, but the puree itself was one note and just overshadowed the delicacy of the shrimp. We also had the inevitable seasonal pickles to satisfy my love of all things soaked in vinegar. It was a similar assortment of vegetables and fruits with the addition of jicama, carrots, red beets, and watermelon. While I really enjoyed them, they did not have the balance of the sweet and sour that I remembered from having them at Momofuku.

We moved on to the original momofuku ssam and the marinated hangar steak ssam. I thought the momofuku ssam was very tasty, but considering that it is absolutely stuffed with some of my favorite things in the world (tender pork, kimchi, edamame, and pickled shittakes), I did not swoon over it the way I had anticipated. The pork was actually delicious, the kimchi puree was fresh, garlicy, and spicy, the wrap itself was moist and the portions were generous. All the crucial elements were definitely there, but somehow the combination of flavors did not wow me. I did enjoy it, just not as much as I had thought I would. I think I had heard from so many foodies about how incredible this place was, so that it had almost taken on a mythical aura. I am the exact same way with hyped movies—no matter how much I may enjoy them without knowing a thing about them, my elevated expectations always leave me slightly disappointed.

The marinated hangar steak ssam was cooked perfectly medium rare, but was incredibly salty. As the star of the plate, I wish the kitchen had been less heavy handed in their seasoning—it was almost impossible to enjoy the dish. This was almost unfathomable—I am mad for Korean marinated beef and love the tradition of wrapping it in crisp lettuce leaves with the soybean paste. I did like the scallion salad that accompanied the dish, and think I will add that to the Korean grilled beef I make at home. In the future, I think I might be better off ordering less traditional Korean dishes at Chang’s restaurants, as I have been happier with his fusion items like the brussel sprouts with kimchi or shrimp and grits from Momofuku.

Ssam Bar was unlikely to live up to my expectations on a first visit, so there will surely be others, and since there were only two of us, we were not able to try as many things as I would have wanted. For the time being, I will return to Momofuku, and wait until people stop raving about Ssam bar - perhaps I’ll be able to appreciate it more then.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


501 11th street, Brooklyn, NY

I have a confession. As much as I admire the sustainable food movement for encouraging more and more chefs to serve locally produced ingredients, I’m afraid that at times, I find the whole thing a bit grating. Perhaps it is just that I feel like it becomes an easy out for certain restaurants—that the cooking hides behind this “higher purpose” that almost dares you to disapprove. I wholeheartedly approve of it in theory, though have to admit that I do not always shop at the farmer’s market, that I sometimes buy food in bulk, and that I don’t always know where my meat and produce comes from.

I am, however, also a card carrying Park Slope coop member and have been a devoted fan of Alice Waters for years, so I am very susceptible to seeing “sustainably grown, local ingredients” as a bright beacon, drawing me to places like Applewood that proclaim this philosophy. As Applewood is on the pricey side, I decided to test the waters by trying it for brunch. It was a beautifully warm day so we chose to sit in the garden. When I had first read about the restaurant, it had been winter and many of the reviews spoke of eating tasty roasted meats by a wood burning fireplace. As noted in my Spotted Pig review, I am mad for meat and fireplaces on cold nights. Alas, it was summer so I’ll have to save those cravings for another time.

We arrived around 11:30 and were pleasantly surprised that we only had to wait a few minutes before being seated. We started with fresh-squeezed blood orange mimosas, and they were a perfect balance of tart, sweet and dry and so very pretty to look at! They were a tad on the pulpy side, but that often comes with fresh squeezed citrus. This drink and the setting made me feel like I was at an old-school garden party, which I loved. I had the BLT with Applewood smoked bacon, local lettuce and organic Vermont tomatoes ($15) and Court ordered the Maple Belgian Waffle with roasted fruit and sweet cream ($9). Even though BLTs are synonymous with diners, and therefore found on every other menu in America, I still have a hard time saying no. Applewood’s BLT was very solid: the bacon was thick, chewy and had the right amount of smoke, the tomatoes were juicy and tasted like a wonderfully ripe beefsteak. The sandwich was finished with a light layer of aioli on toasted sourdough. All in all, it was a wonderful sandwich. My biggest complaint is that it was a little thick, which meant I couldn’t get to all of the layers in one bite—which is really the whole point of a BLT, isn’t it?

The Belgian Waffle was very good as well—the waffle had a crisp exterior that gave way to a moist airy center perfumed with vanilla. I have to say though, that my favorite part might have been the sweet cream—it was luscious, full bodied cream that tasted unbelievably fresh and I pretty much wanted to slather it on everything—BLT included. The roasted fruit however, was a bit bland—just stewed spiced apples. And as it was summer, I had hoped for some beautiful berries, or better yet, peaches and nectarines.

The service was friendly and the atmosphere is terrific if you like intimate neighborhood places like I do. Did Applewood‘s cooking hide behind the local, sustainable banner of righteousness? Absolutely not, but I have only been once and will have to try dinner next time. I’ll keep you posted with a review upon my next visit. I can picture it now: slow-roasted pork and a glass of red wine in front of their fireplace…..

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Walter's Hot Dog Stand

937 Palmer Ave., Mamaroneck, NY

In the year 1919, a wonderful ground-breaking delicacy was brought to the burgeoning Westchester town of Mamaroneck, NY. It was …the hot dog.

However, this was no ordinary dog…

The hot dog as most people know it was brought to the states around 1870 by a German immigrant named Charles Feltman who first opened a stand on the boardwalk in Coney Island. In 1916, one of Feltman’s employees, Nathan Handwerker, started his own stand called Nathan’s Famous, which is still one of the better-known hot dog franchises today. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you live outside of NYC) Walter’s is not a franchise. It is a wonderfully quirky ode to the unique and extremely tasty “split” hot dogs that Walter Warrington created almost 100 years ago. The hot dogs (a combination of pork, beef, and veal) are split down the middle and griddled with a “secret sauce” to create a golden brown crust that adds to the perfect “snap” that any good hot dog must have. Walter’s other claim to fame is the “secret” mustard , which tastes like a mixture of sharp brown mustard and sweet pickle relish. It is absolutely delicious and as someone who normally likes everything but the kitchen sink on my hot dog (think Chicago style), I am convinced that this is the only topping you need on a hot dog this good.

Not only is Walter’s hot dog a party in your mouth, it is a great experience—that is, if you don’t mind lines that sometimes reach a block down the street and can take up to an hour to go through. Walter’s is located in a free-standing copper roofed Chinese pagoda that was built in 1928 and was declared a historical landmark in 1991. It really is an event. Bring family and friends and sit at one of Walter’s picnic tables with a basket of curly fries and several hot dogs. That’s what we did.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gambas al Ajillo

If you have ever been to a Spanish tapas bar, then you surely have tried the famed Gambas al Ajillo. I first encountered this dish many years ago when I was staying in Barcelona. I was young and so enchanted with my first carafe of sangria. I felt impassioned and full of wonder at everything that lay before me, both literally and figuratively. One of those blessed things that lay directly in front of me was my first plate of Gambas al Ajillo. I promptly decided that this would be a dish I would eat the rest of my life. It is simple, but so very powerful. It brings to mind those incredible monosyllabic responses cowboys use to convey everything that needs to be said with just one word.

I first found a recipe for garlic shrimp a year after my Spanish sojourn in the San Francisco Chronicle. I have adapted it slightly, but it has proven to be one of my favorite recipes over the years. It is the kind of recipe that anyone could make, and I literally mean anyone. It is just having the confidence that you could not possibly screw this one up- unless you decide to overcook the shrimp, but why would you? One of the wonderful things about this recipe is the sheer speed with this can be prepared—which is why it is a standby company dish. I have had good luck with frozen shrimp, but the most successful incarnations of this dish are with fresh shrimp. I often buy my shrimp for $2.99 (!) a pound in NYC’s Chinatown. This dish is wonderful with a simple arugula and cucumber salad and most importantly, a loaf of crusty bread to absorb the incredible pan juices. Make sure to have the freshest garlic possible, as it is one of the only ingredients, and you may want to invest in a good sherry for this one—you will use it in your repeat performances of this recipe, I promise!

Adapted from The San Francisco Chronicle


1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 pound small shrimp, shelled
2 tablespoons amontillado (medium-dry) sherry
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon paprika
2-3 tablespoons minced fresh flat leaf Italian parsley
salt and pepper to taste

1 baguette, slightly toasted

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings as a starter/ 2 as main course

Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. In a large sauté pan, heat the oil with the garlic and red pepper flakes for one minute or until garlic begins to sizzle. Add the remaining ingredients and cook over medium heat for two-three minutes until the shrimp turns pink. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately with a warm baguette.

Note: You may want to double all of the ingredients (except for the shrimp) if you want extra sauce for the bread.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sripraphai (64-13 39th Ave., Woodside, NY)

I cannot tell you how many times I tried to persuade my friends last summer to make a detour to Woodside on our way back from Rockaway Beach to try the famed Thai restaurant, Sripraphai. Several articles I had read spoke of the explosive flavors, the reasonable prices, and insisted that any Thai food lover must go there as soon as possible. I was delighted when Court suggested that we venture out to Queens to visit the restaurant and go bowling with our friends who live in the area. We made the mistake of driving through horrendous traffic to get to the restaurant (I highly recommend taking the 7 train), but were rewarded with a roomy table and friendly faces waiting for us beneath a looming big screen TV. The surroundings were modern Asian and not too distracting, and are by no means one of the reasons to visit this gem.

Fortunately, we went with seasoned regulars who pointed out their favorite dishes. I had read about the thick coconut Penang curry, but had not heard of the amazing appetizer of fried watercress, squid, shrimp and chicken ($9) that our friend pointed out on the menu. This was one of the best dishes that I have been introduced to in a long while. The small strips of fried watercress perfectly offset the spicy salad of marinated shrimp, squid, and pounded chicken breast. It was lightly dressed in a peanut sauce, with strong flavors of chili and lime. I will admit to a penchant, rather a fixation, on citrus, and the lime in this salad made quite an impression. I wish I had thought to take a picture of this dish, but will definitely not make that mistake on my return trip. The other appetizer that was recommended to us wasthe ground pork with ginger, chili, peanut & lemon juice ($6.50). It is a cold salad, and comes with the added delight of a transparent mushroom that I had never seen before. At first glance we all thought it might be tripe because of its white fibrous texture, but on closer inspection it turned out to be a mushroom that brought to mind the lovely translucent sea corals that I always want to reach out and touch at the aquarium. The mushroom had a mild water-based flavor, and set off the heat from the chili lime pork and red onion quite nicely. I loved both of the starters and think next time I could make a meal out of just that.

We moved on to the entrees and chose just three, and believe me, it took restraint: sautéed drunken noodles with beef, chili & basil leaves ($7), fried whole red snapper with with chili & basil sauce($17.50), and the sautéed mixed veggies in a oyster sauce ($7). The drunken noodles (one of my standbys at Thai restaurants) were very good — not too oily, and the noodles and marinated beef were both very flavorful. The veggies we ordered mostly to offset the heat of all the others dishes, which all had the asterisk marking them as “spicy.” If you want to order these dishes, but are wary of too much heat, you can ask for the more mild version—“medium” was a nice balance of moderate heat. The veggies came with a medley of miniature corn cobs, cauliflower, snow peas,and green bell pepper. It was nice to have something mild to complement the spicy dishes, but I probably would not bother ordering this one next time.

Whenever I eat at an Asian restaurant, particularly Thai or Chinese, I always try and order the fried whole fish. There is something about that dish, regardless of the accompanying sauce, that I am wild about. I love the tender crispiness of the fish skin and the light flaky meat that pulls away from the bone so beautifully (when it is cooked well). So it was odd that of all the dishes, this was my least favorite. However, it was certainly the most beautiful, covered in sliced sweet red peppers, basil, nestled into the garnish of greens beneath it. The fish was flavorful, but had been overcooked by a few precious minutes and was incredibly tough. I kept eating it, hoping that I would find some hidden section of tender flesh, but there was none to be had.

As we were getting geared up for a long night of beer and bowling, we were not interested in too much dessert, but we did walk over to the refrigerator that holds all of the pre-made sweets, and chose a silken coconut custard. It was not too sweet and was incredibly refreshing after our spicy meal. On the way out, I stopped in the prepared food section and grabbed some peanuts covered in brown sugar and sesame seeds, which reminded me of a less saccharine version of my grandmother’s heavenly peanut brittle($1.50). Sadly, it was league night at AMF 34th Ave lanes in Queens (69-10 34th Ave), so we had to make due with shooting pool next door at the Golden Q. That of course means that I will have to venture back to Woodside to bowl and better yet, have another meal at Sripraphai, where I will attempt to learn the secret of the delicious fried watercress salad.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Burgers at The Spotted Pig

314 W. 11th Street

Ah, The Spotted Pig. I have now been there four times and I still have yet to order anything other than their famous Roquefort cheeseburger. On dark nights solace comes to me as a vision of Guinness pints and a blue cheeseburger. I particularly begin to daydream about a visit to the Spotted Pig when there is a hint of chill in the air—as there was the day my boyfriend and I decided to go there at the end of a visit to the Natural History museum. After laying below the belly of the great blue whale, listening to the lulling sounds of penguins making their way across Artic tundra, I was keen on nestling into the warm nook of the downstairs bar. Oddly enough, I find that I much prefer to sit at the bar area of almost every restaurant I go to. Either to be closer in proximity to Court, or to hear a good friend that much better—I love the intimacy of bar seats and the added attraction of watching all of the action. The action at The Spotted Pig is low-key—tattooed bartenders pouring drink after drink with agility to the motley crowd of regulars, tourists, foodies, and hipsters.

I have been reading about the wonders of April Bloomfield's gastropub fare for a couple years now, but somehow much of the menu rarely beckons to me. It could be that even the salads are $13-15, which seems a bit steep to me compared with the giant $15 burger that, with the towering mound of shoestring fries, is a wonderful deal. It could be that after a Guinness or an Old Speckled Hen (another favorite beer of mine) that the burger just seems "right". Although, I have to admit that last time the Prosciutto & Ricotta Tart($15) sounded quite tempting.

One of my favorite visits was on the coldest night of the year and I specifically went there craving the warmth of the pub and a belly full of meat and beer. We arrived around 5:45 and most of the seats around the downstairs bar were already taken, but we managed to score a nook next to three feisty, Manhattan-drinking, older ladies. It was a tight squeeze, but I somehow thought that this would just add to the warmth that I was desperately craving after the bitterly cold walk from the subway. Unfortunately, we had not anticipated the brutally cold draft that came from people opening the door next to the stairs and we pretty much froze the entire night. Court suggested that we move, but I stubbornly insisted on staying at the bar. And ultimately, I am glad I did—as it is where he noticed one of the final contestants on season two of Top Chef. It was Sam, the tall, taciturn chef from New York, presumably there with his girlfriend. My boyfriend was dying to ask Sam if he “purposely sabotaged Marcel’s efforts by forgetting his fish” in the last episode, but I persuaded him to leave him in peace.

As per usual, we decided to order the cheeseburger medium rare and were delighted with it, though I have to admit I am always tempted to ask for a slice of red onion (and maybe a tomato when it is in season). The burgers that we have had there have consistently been cooked medium rare, and the shoestrings fries are delicious, if a bit bothersome to actually eat. They are so thin that they actually slip through my fingers and get stuck in the ketchup. The one time we did venture away from solely ordering the burger off the main menu, we started out with an order of the devils on horseback ($7), which is the amusing name for an appetizer of grilled figs wrapped in smoky bacon. The dish was rich and sumptuous—the fat figs absolutely bursting with flavor, and the bacon, a lovely salty companion. The figs seem to have been brushed with balsamic vinegar, which was a nice counterpoint to the overwhelming richness of the other flavors.

We also tried the ginger cake with spiced whipped cream, and it was utterly delectable—the cake was moist, light and gingery, and the whipped cream was the perfect - thick, and not too sweet. Our bartender recommended that I have it with the mulled wine, but to be honest I am a cheap date and was done after two Guinnesses. I kept remarking that I smelled the distinct aroma of cinnamon rolls baking somewhere, when Court pointed out that we were sitting in front of the mulling wine slow cooker. No wonder so many people order the stuff.

Hopefully, I will return to the Pig soon, and perhaps this time in warmer weather. I am already planning to make a special trip at lunch to try their Cubano Sandwich with Arugula Salad.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Our first trip to Tia Pol (205 Tenth Ave, near 23rd street)

Sometimes I wonder how it is that I spend the majority of my waking hours thinking about my next meal- where I will eat, what I will eat, who I will eat it with, that it sometimes amazes me that I can manage to put one foot in front of the other. Most of the time, of course, it is on my way to the next meal. I often take a moment to be so thankful that there are at least three in a day, so that there are at least that many opportunities to focus on the next one…

On one of my most stressful work-days in the last several months, I kept focusing on the meal I could have with my boyfriend after the dreadful day came to a close. As I often do, I obsessively looked at all of the websites that would deem whether they thought Tia Pol was worth the “trek” to Tenth Ave. in 20 degree weather, and indeed they thought it was. A relatively small, regional Spanish tapas bar, Tia Pol is consistently ranked as one of the better places for tapas in NYC. It was good enough for me, and the lure of the artichokes and Manchego cheese wrapped in Serrano ham had been tempting me all day. After almost losing my (already limited) breath to whether or not we wouldget there in time for a seat at the bar, we arrived without drama to be one of the first ones in the restaurant. We decided to try one white wine and one red wine and became incredibly enamored with the red (a spicy Rioja) as the night went on. My boyfriend adores seafood, particularly clams, so we decided to go with the steamed cockles and razor clams (navajas y almejas, $7). They were luscious—sautéed in garlic, olive oil, white wine, and parsley – the razor clams were amazingly tender and brought to mind the wonderful experiences that I have had lately with grilled octopus—really tender and flavorful—and it made me wonder whether razor clams would be as good with the same charred flavor. Perhaps if I am ever lucky enough to have a Hibatchi (I am working on it), I will marinate some razor clams, quickly grill them and serve them with some crusty bread and olive oil.

I digress.

Back to our night at Tia Pol—at the same time that the clams were served with crusty bread (which went magnificently with the broth from the clams) our order of patatas braves ($5) with spicy aioli also arrived. I am normally not a big fan of potatoes, with the exception of French fries, and my mother’s mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. The patatas braves were small, diced irregularly, golden, and crispy, but drenched in the aioli. The aioli had the perfect balance of tartness and spice to offset its richness, but we would have preferred it on the side. I never like to deter from the crispiness of the potatoes (and these actually bordered on amber-hued perfection). I generally feel overwhelmed by too many potatoes, so this is really an ideal dish for parties of three or more people. Unfortunately, the potatoes filled us up, so I was not able to dabble in as many dishes as I would have liked, but we did move on tothe artichokes and Manchego cheese wrapped in Serrano ham ($9) that I had been dreaming about. After the potatoes, I had to be sure that I would have room for this tantalizing dish. Unfortunately, the dish was not as balanced as I had hoped. As great as the Serrano ham was (just the right amount of salt and smokiness), the filling was too thickly wrapped in ham—I could not taste the artichoke and Manchego, and quite frankly it made me sad. I love artichoke, more than I probably should, and Manchego is right up there in thetop ten of cheeses (I love that it comes from La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote.) With the right ratio of meat to filling, this could have been a great dish, but that will just give me another excuse to come back and try the dish one more time.

After the patatas bravas, we only had room for one more taste. I decided on the chorizo and melted chocolate on crusty bread ($3.50/7). I somehow just cannot resist the lure of chocolate and cured meats together. Actually, I don’t think I have ever tasted that pairing and much to my detriment! The combination of the salty paprika-spiced chorizo with the bittersweet melted chocolate underneath is something I can still taste more than a week later. The warmth of the creamy chocolate tinged with the salt from the chorizo reminded me of how much I love dark chocolate caramels with sea salt (my favorite being Christopher Elbow’s artisan caramels: As with most of the foods I find most exciting, they taste somehow both like nothing else I have ever had and yet still echo something treasured and familiar. After we finished the last dish, we turned around to notice that the restaurant had become packed with people itching to take our place. As much I love restaurants teeming with energy, I am generally ready to leave when places become wall to wall with people. We gratefully slipped out into the frigid night, where I noticed that my breath had become slow and deep— thanks to the small wonders of Tia Pol.