Heading to Bangkok, Hua Hin and Penang for the next two weeks. It's doubtful any blogging will occur until I get back.
My experience with Maryland’s Eastern Shore is next to none—a weekend in Baltimore is as close as I’ve come—which is why the name Choptank only conjured up aquarium carnage. Apparently, it is a river, and the owners themselves weren’t sold on the name until last month.
I knew it wouldn’t be rustic even if they’d gone and warmed up the former stark white Bar Q space with brick and earth tones. But I was half-hoping for something more shacky and less lentils and crème de violette cocktails (despite my love for that mauve liqueur).
The complementary crab dip and Old Bay chips was a nod in that direction. I liked this, not as much as a Phillips crab pretzel at a rest stop, but close. And a 20-ounce glass of Heavy Seas Loose Cannon India Pale Ale helped matters.
I didn’t go as far as ordering fried chicken (I didn’t want to indulge in front of a fried chicken-loving Lent-observer) but a Virginia ham plate didn’t seem too off base. Besides, it was almost too dainty to count. The dish was Manhattan-ized, shrunken in scale yet off, like beds and staircases in metric countries (ok, that’s most outside the US). Lilliputian biscuits with enough butter for triple the amount. Luckily, I wasn’t sharing.
Then again, non-sharing didn’t afford a taste of the steamed littleneck clams.
The crab cake was a nice meaty ball, the opposite of skimpy, or maybe it was just outsized next to the baby iceberg wedge drizzled with Thousand Island dressing, Saltines and small handful of string beans and chopped egg. It’s hard to gussy up a crab cake without seeming silly.
Banana bread pudding was a sweet little muffin with what I think was caramel ice cream (I just got made fun of for saying carmel, not pronouncing the A—I just can’t put in the extra syllable and am ok with it).
I wouldn’t rush back to Choptank but I could be convinced to stop by for some peel ‘n’ eat shrimp and a beer if I was in the West Village.
Choptank * 308-310 Bleecker St., New York, NY
? There is that rare state you sometimes achieve while dining where everything gels, the food makes you happy, so too the company. Everything just feels right. You might not even notice the people around you, what they ordered, said or are wearing because you’re in a private bubble tuning out the world around you. Sometimes the feeling is teased out from fine dining, though it could just as easily rise from a plate of tacos. This intangible joy was not achieved at Corton.
This wasn’t surprising considering the disconnect between glowing critical reviews (mostly from the cusp of 2008/2009) and dismayed internet comments. I wanted to side with the professionals. Possibly because this was my Valentine’s Day gift, appropriately celebrated two days past the holiday. High expectations.
And when I learned this was where we were going, I immediately thought better against taking photos, invoking a never verbalized 2010 resolution to just enjoy my food, savor without the need to blog it. But I brought my camera just in case. It’s not easy going cold turkey.
Amuses. Ricotta was involved. Something made the muffin-puffs on the left green.
Butter. The green speckled slab was flavored with seaweed.
Another amuse. The first but not the last of aspic-like textures. I think the crumbles were homemade Grape-Nuts.
For wine, I was interested in trying an Alsatian Riesling (plus, with a $145 tasting menu I was hesitant to dip into the triple-digit-plus white Burgundy even if I wasn’t the one paying) and we chose the 1999 Domaine Clos St. Landelin "Vorbourg" Grand Cru. It turned out to be the last bottle and was corked, at that. Instead, we were given an off-menu 2007 J. Meyer Grittematte.
Uni, Black Konbu Gelée, Caviar
Many of the dishes came with sides, which was sort of unusual. The algae-colored uni creation was placed front and center with the caviar vessel placed to the right.
Foie Gras, Smoked Beet, Blackberry, Plum Kernel Oil
This, and one of the semi-desserts came with their own bread. The compressed beet, blackberry disk looked like a sausage.
Spider Crab, Parmesan Spaghetti, Cockles, Meyer Lemon
The squiggles were presented with a crab shell covering them like a dome. The carapace was quickly whisked away.
Atlantic Turbot ‘Saveurs du Terroir’
The truffle-flecked fish formed into a tube, was a highlight. I also liked the use of a swampy green palette throughout the meal. This course went totally wild and was made up of three components.
Squab, Torte, Pine, Madras, Date Purée
This is when the evening took a wrong turn. We had been seated next to a VIP who seemed to be a youngish chef and his wife/girlfriend celebrating a birthday. They were also doing a tasting and were neck and neck with us on courses, except each round they received was more amped up and laden with extras than ours. Big corner booth, truffles shaved tableside and so on.
That’s the way the world works. I understand. (If I were to show up in someone else’s corporate library, maybe they’d share a Lexis-Nexis password with me or something. Us professional researchers, total soigné treatment.) Grant Achatz explained the tricky balance of serving both mortals and VIPs in The Atlantic last year. “Sorry sir, you are not special enough to enjoy that creation.”
I began to take a photo of the ravioli, no one had even glanced our way up until this point, and the guest at the nearby table started doing the same with his cameraphone. Immediately, a woman who I assumed to be the manager, rushed over to me. “If you are taking photos for Flickr or Eater, the chef doesn’t allow that.” Only those two? I internally sassed. “We can provide press photos,” she added. Interesting angle, the image controlling. I was aware that Paul Liebrandt might be a bit of a killjoy, but I never imagined that would translate into a deflation of my own dining experience.
Nothing was said to the VIP. I don't begrudge them, but the scolding began to feel more acute with so much specialness being showered inches away.
This brings up a gazillion issues…or two. Spending $500 doesn’t entitle you to be a wild, food paparazzi douche but does it allow some degree of digital freedom? Rube-like as it is, taking photos of my meals gives me memory-preserving pleasure, small amounts, granted, but how harmful is it for diners to indulge their dorky tendencies?
And then there is the matter of food blogging and the pathological reliance on photography. I wrote about what I ate in 2000 text-only and no one cared. I write about what I eat in 2010, illustrate meals with pictures and slightly more people care (though I think that has more to do with blogs being mainstream versus a decade ago).
I’m not naturally inclined to take photos of anything, food included. On my first visit to Asia in 2003 I only took 11 photos (pre-digital). My last trip to Asia I took a still-restrained 226. Tomorrow I leave for Bangkok and anticipate topping this. Photo-documentation is the new norm. When I took a cooking class in Oaxaca over Thanksgiving, nearly every single student from college kid to retiree had expensive, professional DSLRs and video cameras.
It is tough because who reads about food anymore without visuals? It’s all skimming and ogling, not about words. Can you name a popular photo-free dining blog? It all depends on what a food blog is for. Do people post photos as trophies, proof that they ate someplace exotic, expensive or popular? To make themselves seem more interesting based on their dining habits? I started cataloging where I ate as an offshoot of my ‘90s online diary, just a self-absorbed way to detail the day-to-day. Comments didn’t exist yet, it wasn’t about creating community. There were message boards for that. Only the few people who cared about me would even possibly care about what I was eating. At some point this shifted in a surprising way and strangers did start gaining audiences of other food-crazed strangers. One-upmanship emerged, scoops, personalities, social media experts. And now there is a glut.
I’ve been trying to extract myself from that genre for ages. The photo, caption, photo, caption blahness. I think this will be the last of my tasting menu shot-by-shot write ups. But if I knew how to create a compelling never seen before style of food blogging, I would do it. That’s the type of innovation that could keep you in Corton tasting menus every night of the week.
There were three more dishes, the desserts, to arrive. Even though at the time the Brillat-Savarin, Black Winter Truffle, White Chocolate was completely overwhelming, it’s the only item I ate at Corton that I thought about later. I was just thinking about the creamy wedge of dairy like a savory piece of birthday cake with a thin layer of truffles in the center where the frosting would be, a thin half-dollar circle of also creamy, déclassé white chocolate as garnish (and God, no, I won’t say it was “haunting”). There was a little piece of brioche as an accompaniment. This uncomplicated but luxurious bridge between sweet and savory was my favorite.
Marcona Almond Palette, Mandarin, Fennel, Tamarind and “Baba Bouchon”
Bitter Chocolate Crème, Yogurt Crumble, Muscovado Caramel followed. By the time the final chocolate course arrived, about three hours after being seated, I was antsy and ready to leave.
You may have noticed that I’m barely talking about flavors. I honestly can’t remember them. I kind of lost interest after the camera incident but I might be losing interest in high end dining overall. I rarely leave feeling satisfied, just kind of shoulder-shrugging and flat. I want to appreciate unique and fleeting experiences without fetishizing them.
Corton * 239 W. Broadway, New York, NY
How much you enjoy the food at Jade Island will have a lot to do with your feelings on maraschino cherries and sweetened flaked coconut on savories. And whether you’re ok with canned mushrooms, pineapple and lychees. Otherwise, soaking up the throwback cocktails and tiki décor and may be more palatable for those with more refined tastes than mine.
Weekend Valentine’s Days are dangerous and romance should be avoided at all costs. That’s why I ended up on a Polynesian-themed double date in Staten Island on Sunday.
I quickly got into the mood with a coconut kiss, their take on a pina colada. You’d better be able to abide Malibu rum.
You cannot have tiki without the pupu. I am still a bit disconcerted that crab rangoon did not make the cut. Instead, make due with shrimp toast, curry beef skewers, fried shrimp, chicken wings and spare ribs with hot mustard and duck sauce.
Cold sesame noodles were also a starter.
The closest you’ll come to rangoon is a dish called prawn rangoon, which involves neither wontons nor cream cheese. Prawns are butterflied and coated in what appears to be flat out egg, not egg batter, and pan-fried, creating a squishy, puffy coating. The tail-on seafood blobs are surrounded by mushrooms, snow peas, lychees, carrots, pineapple and enough maraschino cherries to create a pink-tinged pool of sauce.
But that really has nothing over the volcano chicken, akin to sweet and sour with an emphasis on sweet. This is where you’ll find that flaked coconut…and more cherries. I wouldn’t be surprised if an entire bottle was used on our meal alone.
Not all the food is big top brash. Mei fun (pictured) and chow fun with pork were soothing in their tameness. That’s a lot of noodles, now that I assess this meal. My pick was the prawn rangoon. Happy Valentine's to me.
Jade Island * 2845 Richmond Ave., Staten Island, NY
According to The Boston Globe, Amy Bishop, now better known as the tenure terrorist (well, to me) had an IHOP fit of violence:
"In March 2002, Bishop walked into an International House of Pancakes restaurant in Peabody with her family, asked for a booster seat for one of her children, and learned the last seat had gone to another customer, according to a police report.
Bishop strode to the customer, identified in the report as Michelle Gjika, demanded the seat and, after a profanity-laced rant, punched her in the head while yelling 'I am Dr. Amy Bishop.'"
To me, that feels more Denny's than IHOP.
1/2 Hot pot is exactly what it sounds like, a pot of hot liquid (often hot in chile heat, too) where particpants can cook their own food. Yet the name always sounds like a facile double entrendre that could go so many directions. I’ll spare you the meanderings of my mind. The phrase stumped a former coworker of mine (see end of Happy Family post) in ways possibly only hilarious to me.
Sitting around a steamy vessel of bubbling soup is just what you need during the dregs of winter. I prefer restaurants dedicated to hot pot rather than taking my chances with off menu options like at Little Pepper. I was originally thinking Little Lamb, but when I heard about flashy Udu Café with personal TVs, at-table internet access and a checkbox ordering approach, I had to see it for myself (also to witness all the gauche FOBs that New Yorker Chinese were complaining about on Yelp in that strange backlashy manner of established groups distancing themselves from newcomers. Now that I think about it, I’m very judgmental about Oregonian transplants here, always picturing an earnest, indie, social justice trooper).
Backwards judgmental: the only other Caucasian in the joint, a moderately hip white dude with an Asian girl, naturally (now I’m judging) seemed unahappy to see us walk through the door like we were ruining his Flushing fantasy.
We were given a regular table, a two-top that was too small for serious hot-potting. This happens a lot at Asian restaurants, as if they don’t expect the white people to order very much food and then get dismayed when there is no place to put all the plates. The little side table was already being used by the mother-daughter duo across from us who had a whole four-seater to themselves.
This is a booth with the set-up I was describing. It’s common for groups to play C-pop, though one large party was just watching last week’s episode of The Office.
There are seven broth choices, and we picked Sister Su spicy pot, and insisted we wanted it really hot against protests (it was really spicy). I didn’t see an option for half-and-half broth like at Little Lamb, but later we noticed that everyone seemed to have the divided style. I guess you have to ask. You almost need the relief, not so much from the chiles but because the peppercorns start to commandeer every nook and cranny in your mouth and you lose the ability to taste anything.
There are approximately 121 dunkable items you can order–from straightforward chicken or mushroom to charcoal cheese or pig intestine country style, nothing wildly esoteric like pizzle. I do not know what charcoal cheese is. We ordered eight things, which was plenty. With the exception of $38.95 Wagyu beef, most selections are under $5. They do add up quickly, though.
First, you mix up a dipping sauce at the station we happened to be sitting next to. I honestly have no idea what an ideal sauce should be. Shacha, always gets depleted so I know that one is popular. Our waitress saw me taking photos and insisted on making the sauces “beautiful” before I shot that section and spent a few minutes topping off all the empty slots and cleaning up any spills. But my before photo turned out better than the tidier after, sorry.
Shacha, sesame paste, chopped garlic, sugar, cilantro. Seemed sensible enough.
Short rib, shrimp and tripe (way in the back). The flimsy shreds of tripe gets lost in the broth. Fat strips of honeycomb tripe would’ve been preferable, but that might be more Mexican.
Lamb. I would’ve taken more strongly flavored lamb and nixed the beef.
Shrimp balls, pork dumplings and “Hello Kitty tempura.” I’d call the latter fish cake not tempura.
We couldn’t decide what vegetables to order so the vegetable combo bucket sufficed. Corn is impossible to eat with chopsticks and the tomato was just weird. Next time, more pumpkin. Cabbage is cheap filler but I love it.
Full of stuff. I like the Hello Kitty face bobbing beneath the surface in the back.
The meal is ended with warm peanut and black sesame-coated mochi.
It’s not like you can miss the place.
Udu Hotpot * 133-50 37th Ave., Flushing, NY
In Other Words: US Chains Abhorrent to Swedish Pop Stars Unless They Serve the Great Wall of Chocolate
“We really try to avoid chain restaurants but from time to time we have ended up eating at PF Chang’s and they are ok.”
Where are they touring? I’ve always found PF Chang’s to be one of my least-encountered chains, but that could just be an NYC anomaly. We don’t have space for the palatial Cheesecake Factory-style restaurants.
A Taste of Home is truer than I thought. I subscribed to the magazine on a whim. Could 3.1 million readers be wrong? In 2002 it was said to be the highest circulation food magazine in the country, and it still very well could be. An anti-Gourmet, one would presume.
And sure enough, there is not one single whimsical alfresco spread in the publication. The photos are about the food with an occasional thumbnail headshot of a reader who submitted a recipe.
Also of note, editorial assistant, Jane Stasik, shown sitting in a pile of mail (because she answers reader letters, of course) is clearly over 40. None of that young, striving Conde Nast business.
I was surprised at just what a taste of my home the recipes really were, good and bad. I haven’t encountered monkey bread in years, though we called the canned biscuit confection cinnamon pull-aparts. I’d whip up a batch right now if I kept biscuit dough around the house—mixing flour, water and baking powder, myself? No way.
I was not surprised how prominently ground beef is featured, it’s inexpensive and feeds a family. Plastic-and-Styrofoam-wrapped pink squiggles of meat always taste like compromise to me unless they’re going into a burger.
We were never served Italian shepherd’s pie, cream cheese and swiss lasagna or roadside diner cheeseburger quiche (second place winner in their Beef It Up contest) in my household but hot tamale casserole comes quite close to what I might’ve found on my plate. Not a taste I’d like to replicate. And sadly, only subscribers can access magazine recipes online, hence no links here.
On the other hand, there is an entire feature devoted to doughnuts from scratch. It’s quite possible that I’m just being wooed by the true blue–my favorite unnatural hue for food–doughnut topping their tree.
Anyone who has partaken in Restaurant Week more than once quickly realizes that it’s generally not worth it. In the past I’ve always ended up ordering off the regular menu, and now I rarely bother at all. It’s actually very easy to determine whether you should bite or not—is it an expensive restaurant or not an expensive restaurant?
A few friends recently wanted to eat barbecue and none of us had been to Wildwood. Did we want to spend $35 apiece for an appetizer like fried green tomatoes, an entrée such as spare ribs and a chocolate molten cake when “Three Little Pigs,” a porky triumvirate of thick bacon, pulled pork, spare ribs and two sides (I chose baked beans and collard greens) was enough food for two meals and cost $21.95?
SHO Shaun Hergatt, on the other hand, is a mysterious (literally—it’s been covered in scaffolding for eons and has that ‘80s Shogun black lacquer, red accents, land of the rising sun vibe) upscale restaurant that I walk by every single day but have never felt compelled to visit. I know the chef is Australian and that he uses lots of imported exotica and gets flogged in The New York Times for being tone deaf and pricy when that’s not really true.
$69 isn’t an outrageous dinner prix-fixe, the Restaurant Week $24.07 lunch was a bargain and would not be a rip off at its normal $35. My own hesitation stemmed from the Wall Street location and odd placement in a maligned condo with my favorite tagline: The Setai. There’s no word for it in English. I associate the neighborhood with work, not leisure.
I had never heard of Petuna Farms, the purveyor of this ocean trout, and that is because it’s in freaking Tasmania. I’m totally un-locavore so the tartare and roe suited me just fine. I love seeing kalamansi on menus; I seriously thought it was going to be a break-out citrus in the mid-2000s but the Filipino fruit never made the mainstream jump like yuzu. The limey broth was tart, perhaps a touch too mouth-puckery, and slightly bitter in a grapefruit manner. The trout was rich enough to take it, though.
The hibiscus-and-acacia-honey glazed Long Island duck was served with an apple cider vinegar sauce, brussels sprouts, turnips and a gelatinous cube that I wanted to say was beets based on color but wasn’t particularly beety. In both dishes the equation was unctuous+tart+bitter.
I’ll order anything butterscotch and was curious how they meant "parfait." Clearly, this was a modern scattered dessert not a composed chilled treat in a tall glass. The tawny poof looked like a marshmallow but was cold and creamy like ice cream, fluffy. Honeycrisp apples were used for sweetness while the sorbet was pure green apple. More of that tartness. This more like an apple crisp than a parfait.
I rarely talk wine, but if you are curious I had a glass of Lachini Vineyards 2007 pinot gris, then returned to work and saw Eric Asimov had just written about Oregon pinot gris being kind of boring. True enough, I had already forgotten what my wine tasted like 15 minutes later.
If I had a personal chef I would like small, powerfully flavored portions of food for lunch every day instead of my usual light, soul-crushing soup or salad.
SHO Shaun Hergatt * 40 Broad St., New York, NY
If there are two things Americans love, it’s chicken and free food (cupcakes must fit into the equation somewhere). We all know how well Oprah’s KFC giveaway went.
Chick-fil-A has gotten wise and all 21st century, at least in Jacksonville, Florida, where the chain has been allowing customers to reverse a free spicy chicken sandwich online to be picked-up in store.
So far, no riots have been reported.