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Posts from the ‘NYC’ Category

International Intrigue: Yo! Sushi

yo sushi beltI don’t generally get excited about U.K. imports that interpret Asian cuisine. I still haven’t been to Wagamama, though I do frequent Wasabi at least once a week because it’s a block from my office and they have passable ready-made poke bowls–and just added bizarrely flavored popcorn to their repertoire. (This routine made me recently think about lifestyle creep. When I started my job–jesus, ten years ago–I wouldn’t spend more than $5 on lunch and now don’t blink at $12. I’m still too cheap to spend that daily, though. I only go to the office two to three times per week so it’s justifiable.)

yo sushi menu

But Yo! Sushi? I can stand a little novelty. Conveyor belt sushi has never really thrived in NYC and, sure, it’s not the highest quality or the best value in the city. You could do worse, though, for entertainment while dining, and you’re not restricted to what whizzes past you. You can order both sushi and non-sushi items from the menu.

yo sushi collage

When I first showed up at 6pm, there were only a few plates passing by but by 6:30pm the rotating display was much fuller. Seven plate colors dictate prices: from a $3.50 green to an $8 yellow. I think I spent around $35 with a cup sake and a few beers but I by no means consumed a lot of food. There were some shrimp tempura rolls in there, off-belt scallop nigiri, tuna carpaccio, all shared.

yo sushi fruit salad

 

You could pay $4.50 for fruit salad, if you’re that kind of monster.

Despite this branch being touted as the first US location, that’s completely untrue. Just like Uniqlo when it first came to America, Yo! Sushi originally tested the waters in a few New Jersey malls and then shuttered so quietly no one seemed to notice it coming or going. There are now also locations in Boston, Sarasota, Florida, and at Westbury Commons. 

Yo! Sushi * 23 W. 23rd St., New York, NY

 

International Intrigue: BB.Q Chicken

bbq chicken facade

It was over a decade ago that BonChon first showed up in NYC and made a splash with the novel concept of Korean fried chicken. With Kyedong (now Kono), Kyochon, Turntable, and Unidentified Flying Chicken, among others, it’s different landscape now.

bbq chicken downstairs

In Manhattan’s Koreatown, Kyochon fizzled a few months ago and a flashy bi-level flagship BB.Q Chicken might be here to reclaim Korean fried chicken’s former glory. (There were two previous incarnations in Manhattan and still one in Flushing, I think.) Despite the unremarkable name (it stands for Best of the Best Quality) the word has traveled fast. Early on a Friday night, a line started forming for the subterranean table service space and wound up the stairs.

bbq chicken

I tried a sampler of the four primary styles. The simplest version, maybe the calling card, is fried in olive oil and supposedly is the product of a two-day marinating and coating process. It’s very good, juicy, super crisp (rice flour is no joke) and just the right batter to meat ratio. A honey glazed version was like candy, which I loved, though people who don’t like monte cristo sandwiches, bisteeya, or just Chinese-American sweet and sour nuggets should steer clear. Gang-jeong was lightly sweet, garlicky, and spicy, and similar to the non-hot style at BonChon.

I was actually impressed with the “cheesling” style (top right) first for cute name and novelty (mascarpone and cheddar?), but then for flavor. It was totally like cheese popcorn, maybe specifically Smartfood, but meaty. I like the modern Korean taste for adding cheese where it doesn’t belong. The first sit-down thing I ate in Seoul were kimchi fries and there are similar snacky dishes on this menu like bulgogi nachos and cheese fries. 

bbq chicken upstairs

Counter service and to-go are on the main floor. (There was a suspicious lack of cheesling on the shelves). There were an impressive range of alcoholic beverages like canned Pampelonne rosé lime wine and a handful of German beers in addition to the OB, Hite, and fruity shoju. 

bbq chicken uni

Chicken University!

BB.Q Chicken * 25 W. 32nd St., New York, NY

 

International Intrigue: Uogashi

It’s getting harder to keep up with all of the Japanese (and Roman, and Korean, and Malaysian) imports lately. I could be more on top of things. Sometimes I’m just not very inspired.

uogashi room

 

I went to Uogashi at least a month ago, but I haven’t written anything about it because it didn’t make me feel anything one way or the other. It’s my own fault. I was a walk-in and was seated at a table–I like the curtains though–rather than the counter.

uogashi duo

 

As I’ve come to learn, omakase just isn’t the same when it’s presented all at once on a plate. It goes too fast and I like a deliberate procession. You enjoy each piece of nigiri more when it’s assembled in front of you, and you wait in anticipation of what’s next. I didn’t even attempt to take in the rattled off descriptions of my $45 Uogashi Sushi Moriawase set, though obviously there is salmon, big eye tuna, medium fatty tuna, and shrimp.

uogashi sushi

 

The value and quality is there, though. And I’m fairly certain the $38 and $45 sets, two sushi, two sashimi options, are served in one go regardless of where you are seated. I’m glad we’re getting more sushi options in that hazy middle between utilitarian and waiting-for-a-promotion precious. I could be convinced to go again.

Uogashi * 188 First Ave., New York, NY 

International Intrigue: Ikinari Steak NYC vs. Tokyo

 

ikinari steak interior duo

Tokyo vs. NYC

Unlike the first US outpost of Afuri, the Ikinari Steak that popped-up near St. Marks in that international chain mini-district held down by Ippudo and Tim Ho Wan, was almost identical to the one I visited in Shibuya, just swapping Japanese staff for locals. Oh, and also that it was at capacity while the similarly sized Tokyo branch was maybe one-third full also around 6pm on a Friday night. A line started to form at the cutting and weighing counter and a good-natured staff member who was acting as ring-master, shouted a few times, “Stand close to the wall as you can!” which definitely wouldn’t happen in Japan, though no one seemed to mind.

ikinari steak cutting

Four cuts of steak were offered in Japan: rib-eye, tenderloin, US Angus beef sirloin, and Japanese beef sirloin. Hamburg was also an option–hamburg steak is rampant in Japan–but maybe that doesn’t translate to the US. I chose the latter, 200 grams, and the most expensive at 10 yen per gram. The US is also using grams (though they provide a handy conversion table on the menu) and lists rib-eye, filet, sirloin, and a combo of scraps. I went with the cheapest cut, sirloin at 8 cents a gram, also 200 grams.  I paid roughly the same price: $17 in Tokyo and $16 in NYC but clearly the US’s prices are higher. Both are non-tipping restaurants, though, which I love.

ikinari steak duo

Tokyo vs. NYC

You’ll get the same corn on the side, browned garlic and butter on top, and onions underneath, which get great char as they mingle with the juices. This is not dry-aged prime steak, though it’s not quite the Tad’s (r.i.p.) of Japan either. The sirloin was not supermarket steak bland, picking up smoke from the grill, and the little rim of fat adding extra lushness (if you prefer lean, just ask the butcher to remove it). You can add garlicky soy-based “J-sauce,” garlic paste, mustard, and wasabi, which are stationed at the standing tables. I don’t recall that it was recommended you order your steak rare in Japan–there are lots of signs stating this in NYC–I ordered medium rare both times. Rice and salad (radish or green) are extra. I skipped salad this time because I don’t care about roughage, but they are selling bottled dressing at the register so I guess someone likes it.

ikinari steak basket

I also love the foldable baskets for storing your coat and bag, found at Japanese restaurants everywhere, some taking the form of little hammocks adhered to the bottoms of bar stools,  though there was only one allotted for my face-to-face solo standing table, and the gentleman before me had commandeered it. (I’m also in love with the current season of Baskets, just FYI. Louie Anderson is genius as Christine.)

ikinari steak order

You verbally tell the meat cutter what you want here while you brought a little wipe-off card, filled out by a server, to the counter in Japan. This wouldn’t be a bad idea in NYC since I had to repeat myself a few times and with the crowds, the staff has high potential to become overwhelmed. 

They really think of everything.

They really think of everything

ikinari steak facade duo

Tokyo vs. NYC

I did not eat at this Bunkyo branch (there are over 100  locations in Japan) but I only just noticed the same style basket outside with what I assume to be clothing freshener. The East Village facade is more minimal, no menus out front, though there is a photo, out of frame, of the same executive chef.  

I haven’t even mentioned the standing concept yet because it’s not really that weird, though Americans prefer to sit even for tapas. There’s no one rushing you, and you can have your steak re-heated if it gets cold. Of course, it’s not leisurely either, and supposedly the price reflects the high turnover. This also reminds me that the Japanese Michelin-quality standing restaurant that was promised for Manhattan in 2013 never came to fruition. Perhaps the seeming success of Inkinari Steak may pave the way for similar concepts.

Ikinari Steak * 90 E. 10th St., New York, NY

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

Newborn: 969 NYC Coffee

Tuna, salmon, shrimp, and pork...you're covered.

Tuna, salmon, shrimp, and pork…you’re covered.

A mostly Japanese cafe (deli sandwiches are in the display case) with no seeming awareness of matcha’s trendiness (right up there with ube, one might say) or desire to convey its raison d’être with its name recently appeared off Roosevelt Avenue selling heart-shaped onigiri (only $2.50), tempura, miso soup, and green tea beverages. There is even outdoor seating, an anomaly in the neighborhood shared only by The Arepa Lady.

Ok,  Jackson Heights has never been known for its beauty.

Ok, Jackson Heights has never been known for its al fresco beauty.

The last thing I would expect around these parts is a cafe selling rice balls (take that back–dry-aged burgers or grain bowls would be less expected) and it may have to find its groove.

“Cafe con leche?” said one older woman to her friend as they noticed the new awning, deciding if they should go in. “Japonés?” They kept walking.

Being close to the 82nd Street subway station, I could see it working for a morning coffee or tea and a snack. I wouldn’t mind some sweets like daifuku or even a selection of Pocky and Japanese Kit Kats for beginners (green tea and sweet potato).

969 NYC Coffee * 37-61 80th St., Jackson Heights, NY

pauglina

Bonus newborn: Pauglina, a tasteful and luxurious shop like you’d find along the main strip in Hudson, NY, niche and not for townies, is a surprising entrant. Mostly store, there is a small cafe in the back with counter seating and stools, hence a mention here. They’re selling pastries from Lety’s, a nod to keeping it local. I didn’t try anything, but everyone–owners and customers–was friendly and excited for something new in the neighborhood, G word or not. (I’m not anti-gentrification in non-alienating doses, but don’t even get me started on the use of hipster to describe anything you don’t like, i.e. Facebook comments and message boards about anything new that’s not a 99-cent or mobile phone store. Only in Queens could  Latino couples, well-dressed middle-aged gay dads, and imported incense and artful floral arrangements [triple newborn: Tilde, a floral pop-up showcasing creative bouquets inside a decades-old floral store] be characterized as hipster.)

 

Shovel Time: Tito Rad’s

threeshovelMuch like the real world, the food world can be a confusing place. A quick skim through Twitter (well, my Twitter feed) will often mention the same subject framed multiple ways, interpreting ingredients or dishes as a new trend or old hat depending on the source. And this really only stands out to me when the disparity involves a pet interest of mine, like, say, Filipino food (I’ve always been a champion of this chronic underdog cuisine and swore it was going to blow up in NYC around 2012 when Maharlika, Talde, and Pig & Khao were fresh on the scene) which intersects with my blue/purple food mania, and then I get antsy. 

titoradsIn the same few weeks, I attended a Queens Dinner Club event at Tito Rad’s (awesome name and logo) where ube ice cream seemed like a novelty for people who love trying new food enough to come from all parts of NYC and beyond to Sunnyside  on a weeknight and Mic, one of countless millennial-focused sites that seems no different from any other site, posted an article titled LOL “Everything you need to know about ube — the purple yam that’s more than a hipster trend.” (In the past few months, other headlines, blessedly hipster-free, read like: “What You Need to Know About Ube, the Filipino Ingredient Invading the Dessert World,” “Is Ube Filipino America’s Breakout Food?” “Why ube is our new yam.” )

So, is the Filipino purple yam hot shit Instagram-bait or an exotic tuber that you’ve never heard of?

Tell me it doesn’t matter. It’s ok. I was going to “Barely Blog” this but now I’ve gone on too long to lump Tito Rad’s in with anyone else.

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Newborn: Sac’s Place

sacs-facade

So, Jackson Heights finally got good pizza. Not a Motorino or even a Milktooth. No brussels sprouts or negronis–are you insane? Believe me, I’m good with grandma slices, garlic knots, and meatball heroes, the sort of classics you take for granted in many New York neighborhoods. This is Sac’s, a new branch of a popular Astoria Italian restaurant that recently opened a block from my apartment, which is to say in the Latino section of Jackson Heights sitting among two of the best Uruguayan bakeries. The world needs empanadas and calzones, though. 

sacs-counter

It feels more like a takeout counter operation, though there are eight tables configured in twos and fours, and more substantial entree specials, like the lasagna (cheese or meat) and wild mushroom ravioli announced out front on one of my visits.

sacs-slices

So far, I’ve tried a few slices, a pepperoni roll that was nearly hefty as a calzone, and a whole pie. The “mama,” simple with full moons of fresh mozzarella and basil atop what read as a zippy sauce, chunky with San Marzano tomatoes, and tart. (I say “read as” because lately tomatoes, even roasted grape tomatoes which barely qualify as tomatoes, taste acidic to me and I’m not sure if that’s accurate or something I’ve done to my palate with new prescription drugs.) and a white slice, creamier and milder, obviously, which I liked well enough to order as a whole pie with sweet Italian sausage (ground up and blobby not firm and sliced, a surprise) another time.

Unsurprisingly, the Jackson Heights doesn’t have a coal oven that lends that trademark char to the thin crust. Here, it’s a little floppier. No complaints. Ok, just one–with Sac’s now on the scene, I can no longer justify ordering Hawaiian pizzas in the neighborhood. It would be a shame.

Sac’s Place * 86-14 37th Ave., Jackson Heights, NY

Eaten, Barely Blogged: French-ish, All-American, Mexican Mash-Ups

mimi trio

Mimi The mark of a good restaurant is one where you leave feeling better than when you arrived (despite young men good-naturedly but firmly asking you to move down six inches so their lady can have more room even though you’re already arm-to-arm with the older-but-not-old man waiting for his lady on your right, being there first [the first customer period to avoid this situation because you know your limits], the isosceles triangle napkin placed by a server establishing your plot of land at the bar). That’s not a lot to ask, though it’s scarcer than it seems. Mimi succeeds. The sliced madai in brown butter with lemon curd and dried seaweed was like candy, or more accurately, caramel corn, fish caramel corn, which sounds dubious but is brightened by the citrus and amazing with nice bread and butter. I would go back and have this as a bar snack with sparkling wine in a second.  Don’t play around with it too much or else the sauce will start to cool and congeal. Peppery calves liver, rare and steak-like, is served with boudin noir-stuffed eggplant, studded with golden raisins, and also blended sweet with savory well, potent and energizing in the same way as the crudo without being heavy, matchingwith a glass of equally bold French red wine that I vowed to remember without taking a photo  and promptly forgot (comped, I realized later, which occasionally is a benefit–at least at a certain type of casual-polished place–of dining on your own) Even approaching fullness, I was never bored.

emmy squared duo

Emmy Squared I forget if this is supposed to be Detroit-inspired or Detroit-style pizza (which I did try last year for the first time in a very different setting i.e. one that doesn’t threaten a $25/per person fee for no-shows because you just show up and eat pizza). The slices are square, the crust thick but not Chicago deep, with crisp edges and plenty of cheese. I will take any excuse to eat Hawaiian variations in an acceptable manner. Here, that would be ham and spiced pineapple on the Lou-Wow. I’m also a sucker for pretzel buns, which hold together Le Big Matt Burger, the formerly semi-secret double-pattied, white american cheese, and sambal-spiked mayonnaise monster that’s now formally on the menu. Split a burger and pizza if possible. Both are good but you’ll probably leave feeling more or less the same as when you entered. 

mission cantina trio

Mission Cantina is as good a spot as any to unintentionally stumble into on a weeknight. The whole operation from service to menu feels haphazard, and that’s not a criticism (though I almost ordered a drink special because it was green until I parsed that it contained  Midori, god no, which the server thought was cucumber liqueur). It’s a perfect place to knock back micheladas and marvel at more fried chicken than would seem imaginable for $26. That would be masa-crusted, spicy, honey-drizzled, and tarted-up with pickles and pickled jalapeños in a vaguely Southern/South of the Border/Korean way. Like pretzel rolls and Hawaiian pizza, I will always order crab rangoon if I see it. There was an undercurrent of what I thought was curry powder in these fried wontons, which you have to be in the mood for, and then the next day while sweating on a walk home it hit me that the abrasive seasoning was likely Old Bay, with celery salt being the offender.  Limey, lightly funky mussel tostadas, chosen instead of a side vegetable that was practically insisted upon, were more guacamole than anything.

 

Shovel Time: Agern

threeshovelTwo-and-a-half hours after taking my seat at the counter, early Friday evening (the only one doing so until a Japanese guy with hint of a man bun arrived later and was seated way on the other side of the open prep space), I was glad I didn’t change my reservation for something cooler. My original instinct.

IMG_9386

Sure, high-end dining is a little weird just a few steps down the 42nd Street ramp into Grand Central. More than a couple under-dressed walk-ins looked at at menu at the host stand before leaving But also, and maybe more so, do we need more Nordic-tinged food in NYC in 2016? I wouldn’t say I get excited about nasturtium leaves or nettles and especially not dill. You know there is going to be pine somewhere and pretty borage petals are going to make an appearance. (Sure enough, was seated facing the woman prepping the lavender flowers.) It keeps persisting. Cooler might’ve meant waiting a few days and trying the new Aska. I still haven’t been to Blanca or Semilla, though. No one is giving-up tables for one at Le Coucou or that would’ve been part of my Solo Birthday Dining week. Honestly, I chose Agern in part because I suspected it was good value for a tasting menu. And it really was. $145, service included, for the land and sea menu. With beverage pairings (surprisingly heavy on New York state wines) you’re right at $230. Pricey, obviously, but not to the degree of more established, possibly more luxurious, tastings in the city. You feel good about the time and money spent at the end of the meal.

IMG_9391

The non-table-seated view of Friday rush hour bustle. I watched someone struggle with rolling their wheelchair up the ramp for far too long. I wasn’t staring, but it was in my line of vision and struggled myself to come up with an apt metaphor. There wasn’t one. Just a non-young lady willingly eating algae alone.

agern snacks

You don’t receive any silverware during the series of snacks involving cucumber, fluke, horseradish, pine, celeriac, dill, oyster, awesome fried potato bread, and sweetbread that tastes like a fancy chicken nugget, and ends with a steaming, soft-centered round of dense sourdough cut into four wedges and served with butter whipped with buttermilk, which took me a few to realize was intentional. Lemon balm and cucumber gets distilled into a broth poured into a vessel the size of a Chinese teacup from a French press. And then you are on your way.

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Points given for full loaves for one. So nice that bread is back.

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Oof, I can’t remember the details other than tomatoes that I thought tasted dangerously close to melon were involved, something creamy, roe too, and that it probably could’ve been one-third smaller and have had more impact. It was the first night they were serving this dish and it’s not currently on the menu.

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Beef heart with green strawberries, tiny rounds of grassy asparagus, and dusted with a nettle powder was a stand-out. This was more vegetable than meat and tasted like the color green.

What’s the vibe? Well, kind of formal. There is a lot of staff. I appreciated that the front of house wasn’t hyper-white. My server had just moved from Puerto Rico to work at Agern and was jazzed about foraging and local ingredients but still happy to talk to me about alcapurrias and morcilla. Not the youngest crowd. A twee version of “Teenage Kicks” started playing in that Nouvelle Vague manner. It probably was Nouvelle Vague. (Yes, I wasn’t sure if they still existed.)

agern beets

Then it’s the salt and ash baked beet. It’s quite a production, cracked and carved and extras plated on the side. It’s a lot of beet for one person. The sweet vegetable, paired with huckleberries, is accompanied by a really great chewy rye bread.

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This is when I started getting full and fuzzy. Monkfish and apple…

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The pork neck was rich but a little tough, at least too tough for a butter knife to saw through, but also very bright and vegetal with pea shoots and green beans, plus seaweed crackers, more specifically made from a dulse called söl. This was just about right for the savories to wind down.

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My worst nightmare of a dessert. Cantaloupe (ugh) and cucumber with frozen skyr, lemon balm, and there’s that boarage. Minus the melon (which I realize is my own personal Kryptonite), this was a perfectly nice and refreshing palate cleanser. And then I got worried that maybe it was the main event and not an interim course.

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Phew. We’re still not talking caramel, chocolate, or nuts, but I can deal with strawberries, kombucha, and rose vinegar. Ok, who am I kidding? That’s not a dessert either.

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Candies are more me, earthy or not. Little Play-doh doses of chocolate (Brooklyn chocolate) with anise hyssop, chamomile caramel, mint dusted with ivy powder (yes, ivy).

agern bread duo

You get sent off with a loaf of bread, more of that delicious butter, a tin of jam, which I want to say was apricot and it’s a shame my fruit palate isn’t fully developed. Not quite peachy. Best Saturday morning breakfast really.

Agern * 89 E. 42nd St., New York, NY