Thursday, April 29, 2010

UK Edition: The Vindaloo Episode

Lamb (pre-vindaloo)

Being that I am in the UK this week, Indian cuisine is unavoidable. The British take anything good and make it... British.  With the exception of Indian food. It must have something to do with colonialism.
Pizza Hut is a sit down restaurant, dim sum is fashionable and horrible at the same time, and there is some national obsession with prawns. Last night, I actually got into an argument over fish being served at breakfast. Not smoked salmon - that was something that all agreed on. But haddock with eggs? No no no.  Indian is the only thing done right here.
In London, I go to Khan's for the curry. The only strike against them is that it is a dry restaurant. Mango lassi, though very good, is as good as it gets.
Spending four weeks in Cardiff over the past six months, I have eaten in countless restaurants. Most workdays, I find my way to an Audi dealership for lunch. I am not kidding. The best choice for lunch is the cafe inside an automobile dealership, just down the road from my office. Not that I mind ordering a sandwich and sitting down to stare at an R8 Spyder. Daydreaming. Drooling.
The other night, I went out to dinner with Daniel and Carlyne for a Indian by Cardiff Bay.  When ordering the lamb vindaloo I was questioned no less than three times by my dining companions and the waitstaff. One does not order vindaloo lightly. We also ordered up an appetizer sampler, some "special rice" and peshwari naan. The sampler was fine, though it was never made clear which of the samplings a yogurt sauce - conveniently in the middle of the serving dish - was meant to accompany. So we used it for everything. The "special rice" was basically Indian fried rice - egg, peas, rice, fried, done. Peshwari naan is basically the same as what I would call khandari naan; raisins, shredded coconut, and a little bit of crushed almond. We tore that apart, and went back to scoop up the coconut that fell out. Or maybe it was just me. But never mind that.
Lamb vindaloo is the story. I managed to break a sweat (literally) without being overwhelmed by the spice. When Carlyne and Daniel tried it, they both found it to be extremely spicy. What they did not know was that my tongue had numbed to the spice after the first few bites. By fighting through the pain, I found a way to the other side - where the spice was a part of the dish and not so dominant. Instead, I looked like the tough guy who could withstand the most spicy of Indian dishes. For all intents and purposes, I rocked the vindaoo.

NB - Not bothering with the address here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Artery-clogging double whammy Sunday

I was bored. It was nice outside after a streak of unseasonably cold days. I decided to wander the East Village for awhile. That little excursion ended on 7th street between 1st and 2nd avenues. Why so far from the subway (the L train does not count) and recognizable bus routes? I found dinner and dessert on one block, made my purchases, and fled like I had just grabbed a fistful of twenties from a malfunctioning ATM machine.
Why an artery-clogging double whammy? Two words - porchetta, cupcakes. Note the comma in the preceding sentence, please. I am discussing two distinct items, not cupcakes made with porchetta. Although...
First stop, Porchetta for... porchetta. More precisely a porchetta sandwich, wrapped up to go in aluminum foil and then butcher paper. The aluminum foil makes sense because it keeps the pork warm. I see no purpose to the butcher paper other than old school charm. But nevermind all of that. Big chunks of pork, crispy bits of skin, plenty of seasoning (too much for me with some bites) all jammed into a dense yet soft mini-ciabatta-type roll. It was moist, it was delicious, even if it felt like I might have chipped a tooth after chomping down on an overly-crisped piece of skin. I debated getting a second sandwich to take for lunch the next day.
And so I left Porchetta, content but wanting more. Down the block was my second stop - Butter Lane. The line barely crept out onto the sidewalk. A chalkboard sign sat out in the middle of the sidewalk, touting the fact that some Food Network show had featured their cupcakes. I took my place in line and waited to at least make it into the store. Once inside, I noticed a list of cake and frosting selections. What is this? The mix-and-match approach (with some suggested combos) at a bakery? There were chocolate, vanilla and banana cakes. Then there are sixteen frostings from which to choose. SIXTEEN. Actually, fifteen because peanut butter was out. Before making my way to the front, I must have been told or heard secondhand that I could not order chocolate with peanut butter - the most popular variety. Another thing - they sell "frosting shots" and will give you one for free if you become a fan on Facebook using a netbook set up in the store. The line moves slowly, which gave me time to consider the size and makeup of my order. I decided on four cupcakes, two with vanilla cake and one each with chocolate and banana. I favored the cream cheese frosting, but was also tempted by burnt sugar, honey cinammon and grapefruit ginger. This being my first visit, I decided to play it safe and wait on the more creative choices. When I ordered a couple of cupcakes that were not already prepared, the person helping me went behind the display rack and iced a couple of cupcakes on the spot.
It took a great degree of self-control to wait until getting home before devouring one of these cupcakes. I went for banana with cream cheese frosting. The cake was moist and tasted like real banana, not some artificial banana flavoring. The frosting was ridiculous. If I had known it was going to be this good, I absolutely would have purchased several frosting shots just to see how the others measure up. A later experience with the chocolate-based cupcake was a little disappointing. Although the cake had the same moistness, it crumbled and half was lost to my floor. A seeming paradox, I know.
Just thinking about this experience, I feel that I should do some penance and go to the gym for two weeks straight. Or maybe just go back for those frosting shots...

Porchetta, 110 E. 7th Street (between 1st Avenue and Avenue A)

Butter Lane, 123 E.7th Street (also between 1st Avenue and Avenue A)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Wine bars as far as the eye can see

We live in a world profligate with wine bars, we New Yorkers. Wine bars and pseudo-beer gardens. This is where we drink it seems. The art of cocktail is still thriving; it is just being overshadowed by the easy pour, whether into a frosted mug or bulbous glass.
It takes a lot for a wine bar to be good, and so many ways for it to be bad. First, the drink selection has to make   sense. Some places stick to a country or region. Others go more global, but stick with the wines that define a given region - California Cabernet, Australian Shiraz, German Riesling, etc.
Then comes the food selection. Generally small plates and perhaps some cheese and charcuterie, because otherwise you are eating at a restaurant that focuses more on booze than cuisine. In other words, it's fancy bar food.
Finally, decor. I didn't think this was important until I went to a local wine bar that not only had a poor wine selection and sub par food, but nude felt paintings on the wall. Making the situation worse, I went with a female friend and I have a tendency to look around so I looked like a 70's era perv staring at the nude felt paintings behind on the wall behind her.
So where does one find all three - wine, food, ambience - in one place? Most places do one or two well. As you can tell from the example above, some places fail at all three pretty badly. My choice is Salumeria Rosi - a predictably italo-centric wine bar that perhaps excels more in food than in wine, but certainly does not disappoint. Some dishes are better than others, but in four trips I have yet to be disappointed. A béchamel sauce is used with the pork and beef lasagna. And it is good. So are the Brussels sprouts, and the leek and pancetta tart. Even the desserts - featuring a bread pudding of the day (brown sugar when I tried it) - are worth checking out. All small plates, which means order a few and share, then order more. Which is how the bill gets to be unexpectedly high.
As for decor, the acoustics are good, the lighting dim, the tables ridiculously heavy. There is a large sculpture of Italy running up a wall onto the ceiling. The acoustics are key because the place is so small. Which brings me to the one real problem here. Forced turnover. It seems that from the moment you are seated, an egg timer is set. One time, my friend and I were warned that there was a reservation in 70 minutes and we would have to clear out before they arrived. Another time, the hostess offered to evict diners who had lingered too long. Is there a less aggressive (or arrogant) way to encourage turnover? If there is, the management is not interested. The fact that Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations just aired an episode featuring Salumeria Rosi, things are only going to get worse. But that lasagna. So good.
Maybe it isn't really a wine bar; just an italian tapas-style restaurant masquerading as wine bar. The wine list is by no means expansive. The list at Del Posto was a book while Salumeria Rosi's is more aptly described as a pamphlet. Regardless, the wine, food and decor (when you aren't being pushed out the door) all pull together nicely.

Salumeria Rosi, 283 Amsterdam Avenue (at 73rd Street)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Two green thumbs up

After a trip to the Botanical Garden two weeks ago, I felt inspired to introduce a little plant life into my life. Something about walking through a greenhouse filled with thousands of orchids stuck with me.
At first, I thought of getting a window box to put out on the ledge with some basil and rosemary. Enough people questioned whether it might blow over and kill someone walking below (or at least cause a really bad headache) so that plan came to a tort-fearing halt. 
So last week, I made my way over to Home Depot to do a little plant-hunting since the gardening store five blocks away is entirely too convenient. I had to give the window boxes some further consideration when I saw pre-planted boxes with all kinds of herb mixtures. But no. Instead, I picked up four small clay pots, some organic soil and... SEEDS! If I take pride in cooking or baking something from scratch, why not grow something from scratch. And so, once the rather large woman crouched in front of the seed display I set about my final task - deciding what to grow. Basil and rosemary were gimmes. Lavender smells good. And dill looked easy to care for. In a master stroke of dorkiness and to keep things straight, I arranged the pots in alphabetical order (from basil to rosemary) on my window sill. Just over a week later, the basil has sprouted as you can see above. The popped up as well, but it is less photogenic and is barely discernible in the photos I took. 
Further updates to follow, even if I end up killing the plants before too long, which I suspect will happen based on past experience. I once did the nearly impossible - I killed a cactus.

Also - if anyone needs soil and/or seeds, let me know.