Thursday, March 25, 2010

Backup plan x 4 = Good eats

The original plan was to check out Pulino's for dinner last night. First, I invited my friend Annie, but she has a dog and he apparently requires attention. Also, it turns out Annie does not like dog urine in her kitchen. I then checked with Kid Sister (who is 26, but this way I can say it was dinner with Kid Sister and me, and you get that old commercial jingle stuck in your head). Aside from working late, she was getting a ride home and apparently a ride home wins out over flesh and blood. That's fine.

So I grabbed my New Yorker and headed downtown. Arriving at Pulino's the lights were warm and bright, the door was a little heavy, the host had a friendly smile to offer. And that was all I was getting - a smile. Because, you see, Pulino's is not serving dinner yet. This was a rehearsal, and there was no table for one available at this show. Disappointed, dismayed, disenfranchised, and just plain dissed.

From there I set out on a journey to find good food, much like the Israelites wandering the desert. Only this was the East Village where quality restaurants are plentiful, I was by myself and it did not take 40 years to find something.

Plan B was to try Motorino. Wait was too long and I was too hungry.

Plan C was Momofuku, having given up on pizza by now. Same result as Motorino.

Plan D was JoeDoe, though it would have been a first choice most nights. And there it was - a seat at the bar, waiting just for me. I had been to JoeDoe once before. It was for a "progressive passover" dinner that started with foie-gras-stuffed-matzo ball soup and ended with an excellent matzo brie. It was excellent because I usually do not enjoy matzo brie at all.

Joe Doe is small - probably seven small tables that seat two, and one corner table that can squeeze seven very narrow people. They have some choice beers that are not terribly priced, interesting cocktails, a few wines and "prepared beers," which can best be described as a beer/cocktail hybrid.
First come the fried chickpeas, spiced up just a little bit, served instead of bread. Fresh out of the fryer, they did not last long enough to cool down completely. I had decided on pork for dinner. Whether to go with the confit pork butt or pork belly would be left to fate, or Joe's girlfriend/partner. Once I found out that the pork butt comes with yellow split pea soup, ham hock, and a grilled cheese sandwich, the decision was made. That's right. My dinner came with soup and a GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICH. Forget an appetizer - though more than one looked interesting - my meal was really two meals.
The kitchen is sparse: located at the far end of the bar, with what I refer to as the "deli grill," a fryer and two hot plates. For reals. This guy is kicking out some serious eats on hot plates. The kitchen is also ten feet from where I was sitting so Joe and I conversed sporadically throughout the meal.

This one dish was enough for me to still be full in the morning. That and the wildflower honey custard I had for dessert. It came with a Turkish flatbread, sprinkled with roughly crushed peanuts and drizzled with honey.

Say what you will about Joe Dobias and David Chang - they are constantly noted in the press for their foul language and generally belligerent attitudes. They kick out some excellent food from their respective kitchens, and that is all that matters to me. Plus, Joe didn't have anything but friendly words when we were conversing.

JoeDoe, 45 E. 1st Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Complex math: the table wait vs. food enjoyment matrix

Leave your name, go home, have a snack
take a nap, come back,  and your table 
should be ready about an hour later

Having never worked in a restaurant, I do not know how a host/hostess estimates the wait time for a table. Divine inspiration. Experience. Randomly choosing a number the anxious diner will feel comfortable hearing. This happened last week when my friend Michael and I went to Mad for Chicken and were told there would be a 40 minute wait. An hour-and-a-half-later, we were seated. End result - after the excruciating wait Mikey likes it, although he did threaten to tackle a couple of servers as a constant stream of wings passed by.

This was not the worst. Not even close. I should be preface this wait like some great war story. Labor day weekend 2009. Clinton Street Baking Company. The sun was shining that day, my friends, but the gods were not smiling upon us. Naively, I thought that all of the lower east siders would have fled the city for the three day weekend. There crowd mulling around outside when we arrived seemed small enough, so the 45 minute estimated wait time seemed reasonable and realistic. Two-and-a-half hours passed. We went for brunch, but I was ready for dinner by the time we were seated. My insides were all torn up, having turned against me during that second hour. 
But the pancakes. Oh, the pancakes. Warm, moist, dense. And the bacon. Sugar-cured.  Blueberries, warm maple-butter on the side. Heavenly. It took a great deal of self-control, but I think the stack lasted about 30 seconds. I wanted another stack to take home, and still regret not placing that order. Possibly the best pancakes I have ever eaten. Possibly a starvation-induced hallucination. I am still too traumatized by the experience to return. One day, these wounds will heal so I can once again enjoy these damn fine pancakes.

Clinton Street Baking Company, 4 Clinton Street (Between Houston and Stanton)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A home away from home

Room for improvement with Photoshop

I think everyone needs a restaurant, or at the least a bar that serves food.  It is someplace to go when things are wonderfully amazing or horribly wrong.  Either way you get a drink, a bite to eat, and some conversation.  Some people can afford to own a restaurant; others just frequent a place so often, they become family. 

Enter Noodle Pudding.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I have frequented this oddly-named Italian restaurant for a few years.  This fine establishment in Brooklyn Heights is somewhat responsible for maintaining my sanity throughout law school and bar exam study. I would set myself at the bar, open a 1,000+ page book and get to work. At least through the first two glasses of wine. Now I eschew the work and get straight into the bizarre conversations floating around the bar. I could probably write a book on the characters in this place.This is a restaurant with character and a number of characters - from the owner, Tony, to the most regular of regulars, Randy (who has a plaque with his name on the bar so that he always has a seat).

But, nevermind about that. The food is good and the kitchen delivers consistently. There is a list of specials that varies slightly, but most could be described as the seasonal section of the menu (e.g. a short rib with polenta that sticks around for most of the winter). The real variable is fish - that depends on what Tony finds when he goes to the market at 5am every morning. On the regular menu, lasagna, gnocchi and an organic roasted half-chicken are my favorites. With a salad, the mussels ( in either a lemon garlic, or spicy tomato broth) make a meal even though the dish is listed with the appetizers. When in season, I almost always order the puntarelle, which is a vegetable that I cannot compare to any other I've tried. On the dessert menu, I have always been a fan of the rather tiramisu, which is a little heavy on the chocolate (and that is a good thing). Occasionally, I ask for an affogato - simply vanilla ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over - not on the menu.

And maybe, one day, you will be invited to the night-before-Thanksgiving card game. After closing, the busboys and servers cook up some of their native dishes (the carne asada last year was amazing), we set up some tables, and play poker until about 4am.
Become a regular.

Noodle Pudding, 38 Henry Street, Brooklyn
Note: Closed Monday, cash only (but they take my checks so it might be worth trying)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Why I could never keep kosher

Smiley burger face with a uni-brow

That is a Peter Luger burger with cheese and a slice of bacon. I could never live in Williamsburg because of my aversion to hipsters, reliance on the L train, and the Luger burger. Living in that neighborhood, I would be obese and perpetually pissed off by my surroundings. I have the same reasons for not living in Great Neck (substitute the LIRR for L train). I might also drop dead from a coronary while on my way there one afternoon.

There may be fancier and more expensive burgers. They may be messier, greasier and larger. I will still take the Luger burger. Medium rare. Cheese. Bacon. Side of fries and onion rings. Thank you.

It is the slightly-less-wealthy man's Luger experience. You get the same surly waiters, onion rolls, and steak sauce for half the price. The burger is a big mess of greatness. The bun does the best it can to soak up the juices, but ultimately, I do get messy. More than one shirt has fallen victim to the Luger burger. On the first bite once. The cheese is nothing special. But, the bacon... oh that bacon. A first-timer may think "one slice?" before realizing that a full slice of Luger bacon is more than enough for the burger. It must be one-eighth of an inch thick, meaty, salty, amazing. I reserve somewhere between half and one-third of the slice for side consumption. There is a reason the bacon is sold, as an appetizer, by the slice. A man can handle only so much bacon.

Look for me there on the afternoon of the 27th making a mess and smiling. 

Peter Luger, 178 Broadway, Brooklyn / 255 Northern Blvd., Great Neck

Unrelated link: Zach Galifianakis video for Can't Tell me Nothin'

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bagels and being judgmental: A New York thing

Not edible

This morning I decided to walk to work, heading north on Broadway, so that I could stop at Absolute Bagel for breakfast. Lo and behold, when I arrived at the office everything bagel with butter in hand, a bag of H&H bagels was waiting. And so, I take this opportunity to pass judgment.

Absolute wins. It isn't even close. Here is why:
1) Better bagels - H&H is like a big, soft, rounded hunk of bread. Good luck getting a warm one anymore - it seems like all the fresh bagels get shipped off to a number of restaurants, diners, and delis around the city. It it all reputation and no character. Absolute is a tighter, less airy bagel. More notable is that it has flavor. When I get a bagel with butter, the butter melts. Why? Bagels are being churned out constantly, so they are fresh and warm, and just plain awesome.
2) No sense of superiority - H&H does not shmear. They sell the bagel, they sell packages of cream cheese. The rest is up to you. Absolute will toast your bagel. They have the full spread of offerings. And they do not rip you off. A bagel with butter is $1.25 (roughly the cost of an H&H bagel). Cream cheese is $1.95.
3) On my way to the office - not really relevant to anyone else, but I thought a third point was needed.

The real question, however, is whether Absolute beats Bagel Oasis - my hometown favorite and consistently well-reviewed - for bagel supremacy. The bagels are very similar, but Absolute wins again. Bagel O has dropped off in the past decade or so, and the bagels are not quite as good if you don't get a fresh one. There are times when my jaw aches after a bad Bagel Oasis outing. At Absolute, I feel like I always get a fresh one, which may mean the two aren't being judged fairly. But this is New York, and who cares about fairness when it comes to bagels?

Absolute Bagels, 2788 Broadway (at 108th Street)

Making friends at work with little effort

Swedish chef agrees

I enjoy cooking and, as of late, baking. The fruits of my labor have been enjoyed by my co-workers on occasion - with the exception of my failed attempt at rye pretzels. Rugelach took hours came out a little lopsided. Cinnamon buns took even longer and required me waking up ridiculously early. Then Julia Moskin came to the rescue. Previously, I only bestowed demigod status on Mark Bittman and his minimalist column, but Ms. Moskin set me up for life. Her article in the Times last Wednesday, "Milk in a Can Goes Glam," focused on the use of sweetened condensed milk. One of the accompanying recipes was for Absurdly Easy Chocolate Fudge. How could I now try making something that is absurdly easy?

First, let me say this. There are 3-5 ingredients depending on whether you add the optional salt or walnuts. No flour, no eggs, no mess. I went out and picked up a pound of Callebaut semi-sweet chocolate, which is sold in large chucks at Fairway, and a can of condensed milk. With my recent surge in baking activity, there is no shortage of butter in my fridge. Since I have four varieties (table, rock, kosher, sea), I decided to add the minimal amount of salt as well. I set up a ghetto double boiler (medium pot inside large pot with some water), set a very low flame, threw all of the ingredients in and walked away. Once the chocolate and butter melted, and everything came together, the fudge went into a greased and parchment paper-lined dish to cool. The next morning I chopped it up, brought most of it to work and made nice with everyone.

The fudge has been universally loved. Nobody believes how easy it is, so I get way more credit than is deserved. Four ingredients! And I watched a basketball game while it was coming together. Bless the Times and their Wednesday Dining section.

Check out the recipe.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Homemade does not have a barcode

For years, I looked for an applesauce that could rival what I remembered as a child. My grandparents' neighbor in Coney Island, Minnie, would bring over a jar during the (Jewish) holidays. That, with my grandmother's latkes, was a great way to celebrate whatever it was we were celebrating. We (or at least I) wouldn't wait for the pancakes to cool; she would just hand them over in a paper towel - used to soak up some of the oil - I would spoon on a little applesauce and enjoy. This is not idealizing the memory; this is the memory.

The search for an adequate replacement began in college. There are a wide variety of permutations - chunky style, home style, homemade, big brands, small brands, store brands, organic, conventional, etc. At best, it was a mostly uniform applesauce with chunks thrown in as an afterthought. At worst it was... Mott's.

And so I decided to try it on my own. This is part of an overall desire to have more homemade and less store-bought in my refrigerator. Last night I made a mess while making tomato sauce. If I haven't quite matched Minnie's applesauce, I at least think that I have come close.

It starts, obviously, with the apples. I go with 2 red delicious and one rather large granny smith. This produces just enough applesauce to fill a mason jar.  I peel the apples, but not completely - a little skin is part of the experience - and cut them into roughly one-inch cubes. Into a medium-sized pot they go with 1/3 sugar and one cup of water. Over a low-medium heat, I bring it all to a boil, lower the flame a little, cover it, and walk away for about 20 minutes. Here is what I believe to be the key - I mash the apples with the back of a large spoon and not a potato masher. I leaves bigger chunks and less of the mealy applesauce one finds in store-bought jars. I keep it going for another 5 minutes or so, jar it, cool it, and run out of it within a few days. And that is how I know it is the memory of Minnie's applesauce, and not idealizing the memory.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chicken, you so crazy

Crazy, despondent chicken

Growing up, my family would often go to Pollo Loco on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens where the train tracks are elevated. My grandfather would try to pretend he spoke Spanish and the staff would go along, though with quizzical looks. It took some time to translate Jack Spanish to actual Spanish. He once attempted to order coffee by asking for a Columbiana, but ended up with an oddly-flavored soda. Soda not available here. Pollo Loco eventually adopted a new name that was neither crazy nor memorable.

Keeping with the crazy and chicken combination I went to Mad for Chicken, a Koreatown fried chicken restaurant. Based on the website, I expected Korean fast food that you order at the counter and receive in a paper bucket, on a tray, with a pile of napkins. Walking up to the restaurant only reinforced these expectations. Mad for Chicken is above a pizzeria. To get there, you have to go through the lobby of a small office building and walk up to the second floor. I kept looking for another door, thinking there could not possibly be the entrance, but it was. And sure enough, on the building directory was listed "Mad for Chicken - 2nd Floor."

As it turns out, Mad for Chicken is a legit restaurant with a bar, tables, waitstaff, dim lighting, odd music selection, and even silverware. I chose a seat at the bar, next to a middle-aged, Caucasian regular - Peter, I later learned - and two young Korean ladies who Peter was desperately (and awkwardly) hitting on. After awhile, Peter gave up and moved on. Although advised to order the wings - Mad for Wings on the menu - I went for the Mad for Combo. The medium Mad for Combo came with three drumsticks, eight wings, something pickled that looked like honeydew, and the ever so traditional carrot sticks, celery and bleu cheese dressing. There is also a large size that I assume would feed two people. The chicken can be made mild or spicy. When I asked how spicy it was, the response was "spicy," so I knew that I had to have it.

The platter of chicken came out with Saigon Grill-like speed. It was accompanied by a bucket for the bones, a pile of napkins and - inexplicably - a fork. This is a manual meal and I would not be utilizing utensils. The skin is crispy, but not overly battered. There is a faint taste of soy sauce, but the spices dominate. The chicken is incredibly moist. Next time, I will probably order the mild, because spicy is a little intense. My tongue eventually numbed to the experience, but not before a fair amount of pain and sweat. The medium sized platter was a great size and I did not regret passing on a starter of some sort.

And then came the birthday song. Someone in the restaurant was celebrating her birthday, and some odd Korean/techno version of Happy Birthday started blaring through the sound system. I took that as my cue to get the check and head home. But I will be back. Oh yes, I will be back.

Mad for Chicken, 314 Fifth Avenue, 2nd Floor (at 32nd Street)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Compost.... mmmm appetizing

It's the only one for me

I am a fan of all things Momofuku, including every curse-laden comment from David Chang's mouth (and the Momofuku cookbook). It is beyond me that someone can constantly develop new and successful businesses, hear praise from critics and customers alike and then curse everyone out. But this is New York, and grumpiness should be expected in print as much as on public transportation. There was a precipitous climb - in price - from Noodle Bar, to Ssäm Bar to Ko, only to have it all come right back down with Milk Bar, a dessert-only offshoot conveniently connected to Ssäm Bar via a very narrow hallway. I remember going to dinner at Ssäm with my sisters and brother-in-law, then making our way to Milk Bar for the first time. This is notable because David Chang is way into pork and my brother-in-law is having none of it. Ever. Needless to say, dessert raised his opinion of the evening.

By opening up a dessert place, desserts virtually vanished from the Ssäm Bar menu, save for two unappealing choices, and moved next door / down the hall. However, Milk Bar is not all dessert; just 99% dessert.On the far-right side of the menu board posted behind the Milk Bar counter is one noteworthy non-dessert-ie (or is it non-dessert-ish) item - the pork buns. They are awesome. And this post is not actually about them, great as they are.

The names are interesting, and the flavor combinations intriguing. Frozen yogurts are homemade and come in some fairly nontraditional flavors, milk shakes are made with flavored milk. Cereal milk figures into both. Thanks to the cookbook, I know that the cereal milk is a mix of corn flakes, sugar and milk, which is eventually passed through a sieve to leave only the cereal-flavored milk. How apropos a name.

Perhaps the most interesting - and best - item is the compost cookie. Straight from the menu, it is a mix of pretzels, potato chips, coffee, oats, butterscotch, and chocolate chips. "Potato chips and pretzels in a cookie?" you say. I do. Saltiness and sweetness rock. Try one. Try three actually. If you don't like the first one, I will gladly buy the other two. 

Momofuku Milk Bar, 207 Second Avenue (at 13th Street)

Where, oh where, can my dumplings be

 Not actual dumplings

Sometimes I get so excited at the prospect of a new opening that I have to be standing at the doors when that day comes. It rarely happens with movies, and I am usually disappointed by the result anyway. This happens a little more often with food. I was the first customer when Nicky's opened in Brookyn (a half hour later than scheduled). My twenty dollar bill was on the wall until someone broke in after closing one night and stole it.

Not necessarily first-customer-in-line excited, I eagerly awaited the opening of Eton in Cobble Hill a couple of years ago. I noticed the unopened shop while traveling to Fairway one weekend. The single name on a plain UPS-brown awning got my attention. A little bit of Google helped. Eton Chan was a chef at Asiate and struck off on his own to open this small dumpling and Hawaiian shave ice joint. I was there to pick up dinner on the opening night.

The wait for dumplings is long during the slow hours, excruciating around prime lunch and dinner times. This is because the dumplings are cooked to order... on a pair of hotplates, first fried in some sesame oil and then steamed. There is always some sort of activity occurring in the background. Dough is being rolled out, dumplings stuffed and sealed, ice being shaved and doused with a variety of syrups and toppings.

None of the varieties are bad, but the pork and beef dumplings far exceed the other two regulars. Chicken dumplings tastes like...chicken, but good chicken. The filling in vegetable dumplings can come spilling out, as is apt to happen with vegetable dumplings all over this great land that we call New York. Specials show up sporadically. For awhile they were making noodle soups, but that seems to have disappeared. The homemade chili dumpling sauce, kept off the counter, is much better than the soy sauce and huggable, squeezable Sriracha sauce left in plain view.

Shave ice gives way to bubble tea in the colder months, and is much missed. My favorite combination is to add a flavored syrup or two with condensed milk on top. Marshmallow Fluff has been tempting, but I have not tried it yet. For awhile, Eton set up a dessert-only shop on Sackett and Smith. Now that is the only shop. The original store on Henry Street closed down. The new space is somehow smaller. This means that the counter space and few tables are completely gone, rendering Eton takeout only (at least during the colder months). Though shave ice is not yet in season, there were a few alcoholic suggestions posted - to turn that kiddie piña colada into a grown up piña colada.

Did I mention that they are $3.75 for an order of five? Go with a friend, split three orders (2 meat and pork, 1 chicken) and get a small shave ice each. Perfect.

Eton, 359 Sackett Street (at Smith Street)