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Chains of Love: Cheesecake Factory Elmhurst

I just said I didn’t eat at chains alone. This was an exception. It was bugging me that the city’s first Cheesecake Factory opened practically walking distance (a 12-minute bus ride, if you time it right) to my apartment but I hadn’t been yet. Queens already isn’t an easy sell as it is–Brooklyn people are very, very provincial/lazy–and I maybe have two friends that could be convinced to go to a mall in Rego Park (the Cheesecake Factory’s address is listed as Elmhurst–it’s very cuspy). I couldn’t wait any longer.

I used my trip to Target to return this ridiculous pepper grinder that had no obvious way to insert peppercorns (I’m not great with spatial logistics, but seriously) for my $7.99 back just before the 60-day grace period was up as an excuse to mall-hop.

chain nexus

This Cheesecake Factory, across the road from Shake Shack and up the block from a Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Joe’s Crab Shack trifecta, is the nexus of chain culture in Queens. This restaurant is palatial for the area, large-scale, properly Vegas-y, yet not as sprawling and labyrinthine as its suburban brethren. There also weren’t hour waits for tables, though there were expectant diners waiting in the lobby.

cheesecake factory bar

Just me, I went to the bar. I didn’t grow up with Cheesecake Factories, I’ve only come to know them in adulthood, and the first two times in two different New Jersey locations, you could still smoke at the bar, so that was pre-2006. It must be noted for The Middle Ages posterity that there was one solo woman at least a decade older than me wearing earbuds while she ate (realizing more and more this is very common) who ordered a virgin pina colada, something off the “Skinnylicious” menu, and then crab wontons to go when she saw mine and asked what they were. Another solo woman at least a decade younger was on her left and was gnawing on a pile of wings.

I couldn’t necessarily pin down the crowd. An ethnically ambiguous (the man seemed sort of Latino and the woman a little South Asian) 30something couple in workout clothes, or maybe just athleisure, sat on my other side. The man asked if they had any organic wine, which ok…no. Then he didn’t know what a flatbread was. Like I said, I can’t say exactly what kind of people these are.

cheesecake factory wontons

The portions are big and American so you get kind of screwed by yourself even if ordering appetizers like my crab wontons. It’s too much and you want another item. Tuna tartare was randomness because I wanted variety and lightness. 

cheesecake factory bread

I do like that you get a full bread basket.

cheesecake factory menu

There seems to be a misperception among those who have not had the good fortune to visit a Cheesecake Factory that all they sell is cheesecake. My god, no. There are multiple menus with more choices than a typical spaghetti-to-spanikopita Greek diner, and they are not averse to trends. They’ve got your kale, quinoa, and avocado toast, ok?

cheesecake factory cheesecake

I decided I would be remiss in not ordering cheesecake, at least to go. This is 1,200 calories of salted caramel madness.

Previously in Cheesecake Factory.

 

 

Cheesecake Factory * Queens Center, 90-15 Queens Blvd., Elmhurst, NY

 

The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County: Kona Grill

kona grll vibe

I’m not going to tell you how long ago I ate at Kona Grill because it’s kind of embarrassing in its negligence (not for the mere fact that I ate there). But the documentarian completist in me can’t let it go unmentioned. Plus, I took NJ Transit to get there on a weekend so it was kind of an effort (combined with a visit to friends nearby–I don’t generally do chains solo unless in other countries–where we also did Bonefish Grill brunch). I’ve never been attracted to Kona Grill, kind of because it has a conflicting brand identity. The name would imply meats with some tropical edge, though in reality sushi is prominent. It’s not a part of some major restaurant group (though it’s based in Scottsdale, AZ like P.F. Chang’s) and there are only roughly 30 locations in the US. And also it’s in the parking lot of the Renaissance Hotel, near no other restaurants, unlike the usual suburban clusters, but most importantly it’s across the highway from Bonefish Grill, my old favorite chain, so if I was going to go to Woodbridge (technically Iselin), NJ I would have a hard time giving up a plate of Bang Bang Shrimp for the unknown.

kona grill food

So, Kona Grill is glitzier than it projects from a speeding car zooming down Route 1. There is a main dining room, with a sushi bar as its focus, all glowing blue like a Vegas (or NJ) lounge. We sat in a windowed side room near a fire pit, illuminated by TV screens, and shared a bunch of small plates (crab cakes, dumplings, avocado egg-rolls with honey-cilantro sauce, and portobello & goat cheese flatbread). Entrees remind you of the Grill part of the restaurant’s name and read busy a la miso-saké sea bass shrimp & pork fried rice, pan-asian ratatouille, yet there are also cajun dishes, cuban sandwiches, greek salads, and clam chowder. The menu could stand to be shaved by one-third.

kona grill drinksYou can have sake flights in addition to the Strawberry Basil Lemonades made with Bacardi Dragon Berry Rum. Yes, I’m the freak who always orders a martini with a cheese-stuffed novelty. I think the chain does a substantial happy hour business (I recall reading that in some earnings call transcript), which I will probably never witness first-hand.

Kona Grill * 511 US Hwy 1 south, Iselin, NJ

I Do(nut): Carl’s Jr. India

 

“Visit your nearest Carl’s Jr. and propose your Valentine with an Onion Ring in a quirky way.”

I think I’d want more than 20% off for this.

Chains of Love: Denny’s Jackson Heights

Though it seemed like it appeared overnight, anyone following Queens chain news knew that this Denny’s has been promised for years. The first rumblings were in spring of 2013, a year and a half before I moved down the street. I assumed upon unpacking I would have Super Birds at my disposal 24 hours a day.

denny's facade

The most surprising thing about the new Jackson Heights’ Denny’s, nestled into the fresh, picture-window building also housing a Chipotle and Dunkin’ Donuts wasn’t that they don’t serve craft cocktails like NYC’s first Denny’s (they don’t serve alcohol at all) or that the host automatically sent my arriving party to the table where I was already seated (guess there’s a dearth of childless, middle-age white ladies in the neighborhood) or that it was nothing like the Denny’s in Japan. No, I was extremely tickled that the check was automatically divvied into three. I’m pretty sure I’ve never encountered that at a restaurant in NYC–or any other Denny’s.

denny's receipt

I did not take any photos of the interior. The restaurant is quite bright and large (the waiting area is the size of most cafes in the area) with lots of burgundy booths, diner seating, and totally nondescript décor. I kept getting distracted by blown-up photos on the wall depicting what looked like a Waffle House, but with Denny’s name on the signs.

The menu is heavy on Grand Slams, skillets, and burgers, as it always was. It’s also pretty trend-averse. There are no flatbreads or kale salads. Jalapeño bacon and salted caramel are about as daring as it gets.

denny's pot roast

Bacon cheddar tots were a new addition, and regular old fries could be upgraded to the little blobs, more fritter than tot, for $1.29, so that had to be done. They would probably be better if they cheese had melted rather than stayed shredded. I had no complaints about the level of American cheese oozing on my pot roast melt, though. With the addition of sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions, held together by toasted 7-grain bread, this was not a bad sandwich. There was an unplanned double pot roast order at my table.

denny's duo

I love leftovers (I always freak when dining with people who leave 25% of their food destined for the trash) so I brought them to work the next day. I reflexively hid my plastic bag from view on the subway, but remembered this was the 7 train, not the F where my Olive Garden remnants elicited scowls.

Denny’s * 8710 Northern Blvd., Jackson Heights, NY

Shovel Time: Mingles

threeshovel So, I didn’t end up eating any traditional food in Seoul but that’s not to say I avoided Korean cuisine altogether. I just went a little fancy with it. Mingles, though, is the funniest name for a restaurant freshly Michelin starred, South Korea’s first inclusion in the guide. It screams swinging singles a la Regal Beagle, and also makes me think of Mumbles, a fern bar-ish restaurant that was in Gramercy up until a year ago. Put those thoughts out of your head, though.

mingles interior

I didn’t have any urge to try a tasting menu type restaurant in Tokyo, but somehow it made sense in Seoul because it’s so modern and glitzy and status-y. I did a prix-fixe lunch, a pretty good value at 58,000 won ($50) even with multiple supplements. I went wild and added the 50,000 won beverage pairing because it was Thanksgiving and as the lone American I felt it necessary.

mingles menu

 

What follows isn’t going to be insightful at all. The menu descriptions are minimal and my server verbally explained things to me like “baby pine tree sprouts,” so I had no idea what the original Korean words are for a lot of the ingredients. Sometimes I asked, but my notes are not helpful as I typed what I thought I heard i.e. “choeksak” which turned up zero hits on Google.

mingles amuses

Amuses: omija kombucha, smoked eel, and fish cake with a mustard sauce. A lot of appreciation depends on your familiarity with Korean ingredients. Omija is “five-flavor berry” and commonly used in a tea. The corn and egg curd also contained cauliflower in the custard and chorizo hidden at the bottom of the shell.

mingles fish

The fish dish of the day was eel with sansho vinegar jelly. At least I did know that sansho is a Sichuan peppercorn relative.

mingles salad

Foie gras salad, described as autumn fruits and vegetables, herbs with a foie gras torchon and lobster. I do not know any of the fruits, vegetables, or herbs. I want to say there was a slight cherry flavor.

mingles duck

I chose the dry-aged duck as my main course because it was the only poultry, hence closest to turkey (which is always meh anyway). It was not totally un-Thanksgiving-like with a little dish of chestnut cream. Also, garlic leaves and that something that I noted as “choeksak.”

mingles tart

The autumn dessert was a fermented pineapple tart with “doen jang” chestnut, which I think is a fermented bean paste using chestnuts, and “makgeolli” ice cream. I’m not sure if the quotes around makgeolli meant that it was flavored with rice wine or something to mimic the effect.

mingles tea

There were a choice of teas (I guess technically tissanes) and I picked Jerusalem artichoke tea. Mignardises were chestnut choux and grape jello. It was a good thing that I love chestnuts.

mingles drinks

A sochu made with “baby pine tree sprouts.” Thankfully, it was not piney at all, more bready and yeasty. Also, a 2004 Australian Chardonnay and 2014 Chinon.

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Ok, if I ever return to South Korea I swear I’ll eat bibimbap (I did get that on Korean Air) and bbq and my favorite Korean thing ever, ddukboki.

Mingles * 94-9 Nonhyeon-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea

 

Eaten, Barely Blogged: 48 Hours in Seoul

gontran cherrier duoGontran Cherrier This lovely matcha almond croissant prompted a Facebook friend to comment “Aren’t there any local delicacies you could eat?” Uh, no. Well, French pastry is practically Korean. Hello, Paris Baguette? I didn’t set out to eat absolutely no traditional Korean food (though I intentionally stayed in Itaewon, which has a lot of American and international influence) but traditional Korean food is extremely unfriendly to solo diners. The restaurant culture is super communal, social, and family-style, barring fast food and street food. I’d read stories of people being turned away at bbq joints even if they promised to order portions fit for two. Tokyo, was totally the opposite, thankfully.

pancake house

I almost went to the Original Pancake House instead of Gontran Cherrier, just because it felt like my duty as a native Oregonian. Yes, the original Original Pancake House is headquartered in Portland.

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Shovel Time: Gen Yamamoto

threeshovelI planned to drink at more bars for obsessives (Benfiddich was not terribly far from my apartment but it was too early or closed the days I was nearby) and also ones that had female bartenders (horrible headline warning). That didn’t really pan out. I am glad that I did make it to Gen Yamamoto.

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(I had intended to take the subway there, just off two days in Seoul where I took buses and subways all over with ease, but the multiple train and subway lines from different companies was confounding and at this particular station there wasn’t a map in English so you couldn’t safely choose your end stop. I realize NYC is an anomaly but subways are so easy when it’s not distance-based. Plus, you don’t have to hold on to your ticket to exit. So, we hailed a taxi in desperation and even though he was driving at a respectable speed, it soon became clear we would be late. I was phobic of being tardy in Japan because I know it’s very frowned upon. Hilariously, I was scrolling Google maps in the taxi and I accidentally hit the link to call Gen Yamamoto. I never ever call places, it’s totally anxiety-provoking, so I was surprised that I didn’t hang up. On the spot, I just said I had a reservation at 5:30 and would be five minutes late. I was thanked profusely, and then again in person, and now I wonder if I’ve been living my life wrong all this time. We were five minutes late, but the three other people who shared our reservation all arrived later fyi.)

I naively thought we would order the four-drink $39 omakase, but I hadn’t gotten into the rhythm of Tokyo yet. When you’re seated it’s so peaceful and the bartender takes so much care, it would almost be insulting to not stay for the additional two cocktails. (Also, it’s slightly awkward to leave when there are three other guests that are staying.) There’s a time for slamming a bowl of ramen and another for sipping seasonal cocktails.

gen grid

  • Gooseberry with sparking rice wine
  • Barley sake, Granny Smith, green tea
  • Filtered sake. I wrote “Nihinga pear sweeter 1 month after harvest” but there does not appear to be something called a Nihinga pear. I’m assuming it was a misheard city or region because on the online menu (which has completely changed) each fruit is assigned an origin.
  • Cotswold gin, ginger, yuzu. Everyone seemed to like this the most, because it had more of a kick and was less subtle than the drinks made with sake.
  • Suntory whiskey, water, ume. Yamamoto was a huge Suntory fan, which was interesting. One of the couples from LA asked his favorite whisky, expecting something esoteric. It’s the consistency that he prizes.
  • Roasted sweet potato, milk, chocolate

More on drinking in Tokyo in The Middle Ages.

Gen Yamamoto * 1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0045, Japan

Shovel Time: Kurauzo

twoshovelI kind of regret not eating at any yakiniku (grilled beef) restaurants but I feared paying $50 for a few bites of wagyu. Kurauzo couldn’t be more opposite. Because I’d already eaten dinner (never opposed to second dinner/fourth meal on vacation) I was just tagging along with the beau’s jiu jitsu crew, also from Portland, in town for the annual judo Grand Slam (which only coincidentally coincided with my trip). These are paleo-ish folks so meat, no beer, salad substituted for rice.

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You can choose different cuts of steak, by the gram. Hamburg steak with demi-glace, beloved by Japanese (I wasn’t convinced to try it), is also featured. And no one blinks if you get a steak and hamburg combo.

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I had 200 grams of a very meaty, slightly tough cut that I’m struggling to remember (I can’t find any English info online about this place) the name of. I’d not heard of it before, but was swayed by the menu’s claims that it was favored by the Japanese (also that it was like $13). Steaks are accompanied by green beans, corn, potato wedges, and rice, obviously. You can’t not have rice with your meat. A salad course is first. The raised circular spot on the hot cast iron tray is for further grilling your meat.

This restaurant looks like a chain, yet it’s not (it’s so Japanese it doesn’t have a website). There are, however, lots of similar low-cost steak concepts in Tokyo, one which has promised to open in NYC at any moment. More on Ikinari Steak later…

Kurauzo * 4 Chome-1-3 Ueno, 台東区 Tokyo 110-0005, Japan

Shovel Time: Old Imperial Bar

threeshovelOld Imperial Bar along with Suntory Eagle Lounge and others I assumed I’d yet to discover, I thought would make a great, visually dazzling article for some sort of outlet. But of course, this was already done by Monocle nine months earlier. You can gawk at the slideshow even if you’re not a subscriber (I am not).

old imperial grid

On a weekday afternoon, is was all but empty. Just one man who stopped in for coffee, laid a bunch of paperwork on the table, then left in a hurry, and a lone woman drinking a fruity cocktail at the bar.

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It’s assumed if you do wander to the farthest reaches of the mezzanine level, you’re there intentionally. I was given a few architecture volumes with pages marked when I sat down.

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If I’m understanding correctly, the hotel due to earthquakes and disrepair has been built and re-built for over a century, and one iteration was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. That version was demolished in 1967 but pieces like the mural in this bar were restored.

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I couldn’t get enough of these menus that looked decades old but clearly had modern prices; $19 for that American Clubhouse Sandwich. Cocktails were Manhattan hotel bar prices.

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I ordered the signature Mt. Fuji (old tom gin, maraschino, lemon and pineapple juice, cream, egg white) even though I knew it would be milder and sweeter than preferred. I had to switch to a martini next, schooling the boyfriend who stopped drinking before he was legal drinking age. He asked “Which drink has the most alcohol for the price?” Well, I wasn’t going to let him order a Long Island Iced Tea in Tokyo.

old imperial panorama

It was a miracle I only smoked one cigarette in Tokyo, and off my apartment’s balcony, because there were so many fitting opportunities. I always want to smoke when I drink, so that’s the power of Wellbutrin. I did at least snag a few matchbooks from this bar.

More on drinking in Tokyo in The Middle Ages.

Old Imperial Bar * 1-1, Uchisaiwaicho 1-chome, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8558

Shovel Time: Hajimeya & Baird Taproom

twoshovelI regret to inform you that I ate no whale, no horse, not even chicken sashimi in Tokyo. I didn’t delve deeply into yakitori esoterica either, though there were opportunities.

hajimeya menu

Oil producing region of chicken coccyx?

Hajimeya I do love Japanese specificity, though, resulting in dozens of subtly different cuts of chicken (hiza nonkotsu/knee cartilage vs. nonkotsu/breast bone cartilage) and pretty much every internal organ up for grabs where we Americans only concern ourselves with thighs, wings, and breasts. Ok, maybe some livers.

hajimeya trio

The most outré cut I sampled was bonjiri a.k.a. chicken butt, partially because I could say guess what? You know the answer. But also because it provided great contrast: chewy fat, singed skin (shio-style, only salted, for purists) and little crunchy bits of cartilage, all irregularly shaped onto a skewer. Above were also tricky-to-eat wings, skin, and cartilage.

I chose Hajimeya because I was a little intimidated by no English, only paper hand-written Japanese menus on the wall izakayas, and I was meeting a friend of a friend who spoke little English, and I hoped to use him as a translator. But as you can see above, menus were available with English translations scrawled on them.

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