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I'd just gotten over a week-long severe stomach illness and was ravenous,
and strangely my normal food cravings were totally absent. Not wanting any
form of Asian food isn't like me. I feared my body had gone through some
bizarre realignment after barely eating for seven days when I found myself
wanting either German, English or Italian cuisine. I think it was their
perceived heartiness that was appealing.

I love the idea of lots of little things, but invariably small plates
leave me eating leftover Thanksgiving turkey a couple hours later. We
should've ordered at least four things, but I felt like we were being capped
at three, like that's when the waitress seemed satisfied with our choices.
But then, I'm self-conscious about things like eating alone in public (which
I wasn't) and looking gluttonous (which I am), so maybe I was being

I'm bad with Italian food, seriously, pardon my ingredient ignorance,
but I'm going with English terms. The first thing that came from the kitchen
was a warm brussels sprout salad with pancetta, a soft white cheese shaved
into squiggles, and a balanced vinaigrette (I'm not a fan of severe
tanginess). We also shared a special of lamb that came sliced and was
surrounded with a sweet/savory chutney, and prawns wrapped in prosciutto.
The prawns might've been my favorite, though all of it was quite tasty. I
just could've eaten more, that's all. An accompanying polenta might've rounded
out the meal.

I never see celebrities, I'm not sure if its because I don't pay attention
to my surroundings or that I don't frequent their lairs. And oddly, whenever
I do spot one there's a Coen brother connection. Not too long ago Tim Blake
Nelson sat next to us at Lombardis. This evening Frances McDormand and two
gentlemen were seated at the table across from us. They came after us and
left before we did, so obviously they were fine with eating even less food
than we did, or else they're really fast eaters.

'inoteca* 98 Rivington St., New
York, NY

Petit Fours–All That?

You know, the more I think about it I bet those Swiss Colony petit fours aren’t all that. I recently picked up a box of pretty pink and minty green little cake squares at the International Food Warehouse in Lodi, NJ because they were so alluring. But like much of the food at IFW, they looked better than they tasted. I actually ended up throwing half the box out this morning because I’m trying not to be a calorie waster. It’s a shame to get all fat and sugared up on bland treats. I want to save my gluttony for only the most delicious of items.

Shrek & Spice

Yeah, Shrek’s made his ugly way into everything. But these fluffy green filled Twinkies caught my attention anyway. It’s probably due to my love of any unnaturally green food (lettuce? Not so much love). I used to go nuts every St. Patrick’s Day when McDonald’s would do shamrock shakes and sundaes. After begging for one, I’d invariably be disappointed by the mint flavor (mint’s never done much for me, which is troublesome for someone with green as a favorite color). I’m not sure how many years this begging then rejecting scenario ensued before my parents stopped giving in to my demands. Luckily, Shrek Twinkies don’t taste minty green, they just are.

Once again, I’ve become fascinated by soda even though I don’t really have a taste for it. No, I’m not even going to discuss those limited edition Thanksgiving-themed Jones sodas. Pepsi Spice is for the masses. More interesting than the beverage are the scary little recipes for things liked baked yams using…you guessed it, Pepsi Spice. Perhaps even scarier is this person’s quest to only drink Pepsi Spice for a month and a half.

Traitor Joe?

I don't recall Trader Joe's opening with much fanfare, it just started existing in Portland sometime in the mid-'90s and has continued ever since. At the time there was only one location, over in that out-of-the-way S.E. Portland pocket near Holgate and 39th streets (actually, I'm embarrassingly over familiar with that area since it was where my teenage stalkee lived). I'm pretty sure they've multiplied since I left in '98.

Though I only spent a few brief years getting to know Trader Joe's, it made an impression on me, and I've discovered I'm not alone. It's one of the few stores I can get staunch New Yorkers worked up over. None of these everything's-better-in-the-city types get my fascination with Wal-Mart, strip malls, or even Target (which I'd mistakenly thought was the new Manhattanite darling since opening in downtown Brooklyn). But when Trader Joe's is mentioned, eyes brighten, heads nod, I've made a breakthrough. It seems that practically everyone has had the opportunity to visit the store somewhere in the U.S. and with this little taste, know they're missing out.

I've always viewed Trader Joe's as a source of cheap, semi-healthy and passably gourmet/specialty items. Honestly, that's not a huge deal in Portland since the city's bursting at the seams with organic crap, but in NYC, inexpensive quality food is a rare species, indeed.  But TJ's (ew, that sounds gross, but I've heard people refer to it as such) ain't what it used to be, at least not in my nearby travels.

So far, I've tested Scarsdale and Hewlett (the only one really accessible to New Yorkers via LIRR) in New York and Westwood and Westfield in New Jersey (why the two wests, who knows'). Westfield has become the Trader Joe's of choice, if not because they're the only branch that sells alcohol, but also due to their proximity to the most kickass Hong Kong Supermarket I've ever seen (to be written about soon).

I'm not sure if it's Westfield that's been clouding my Trader Joe's nostalgia or if the store itself is just changing. On my most recent visit I felt like they'd hired character actors to populate the store. The nasal New York accent (or is that New Jersey' I can't tell. Think what's-her-name, that girlfriend of Chandler's on Friends–not that I ever watch lame sitcoms, of course) was rampant. I guess it's my own fault for doing the NJ trek on weekends, but in typical tri-state fashion the aisles are always so jammed you'd think they were giving away free Trader Giotto's marinara or some shit.

Level-headed shoppers have been replaced with zombies mobbing the back corner for cases of 'Two-buck Chuck,' geriatric couples with wives who loudly lecture their hubbies on what the doctor said they can and can't eat, the ladies who low carb, fervently checking labels and creating cart jams in the bagged nuts section, and the fresh off the turnip truck crowd (do they even have turnips in NJ'it is the Garden State, right') who act like they've never been in a store that sells faux health food before, "would ya look at this–chocolate-covered soybeans."

I never thought I'd miss those free trade coffee swilling, Tom's of Maine using, soyrizo-scarffing Oregonians, but they're benign in comparison. Quaint. I used to pine for an NYC Trader Joe's, but visions of Park Slope 40-year-old first time mommies, or worse, Williamsburg parents who think it's cute to dress their babies in deconstructed rock tees from the '80s, snatching up lunch box-sized chocolate soymilk with glee keep my dream in check. I'll suffer sans Trader Joe's if it means keeping precious NYC riff raff at bay.

Trader Joe's * 155 Elm St., Westfield, NJ

Laksa Trauma

I hope this is just an unfortunate coincidence, but the two times I’ve decided to make laksa (lemak) from scratch I’ve ended up sick. The last time, a few years ago, it was nothing major, just a little queasiness and dismay at the gritty quality of my broth (I’m not sure if you’re supposed to pound the paste even finer or strain to catch the little bits).

The weekend before last I trekked out the Edison, NJ Hong Kong Supermarket. The one in my old stomping ground, Sunset Park, is fine, but this behemoth totally blows away any NYC Asian grocery stores. Plus, in the back of my head I was thinking how the NJ location is the only place I’ve seen rau ram (or daun kesom to be more Malay about it) for sale. While I’ve never knowingly tasted this herb, I know it’s integral for laksa.

Of course it wasn’t in stock on this trip. But I decided to go ahead with the laksa-making project anyway. Using a combination of three recipes I went for one that used both coconut milk and broth (last time I made shellfish stock from scratch, but I wasn’t so gung ho this time), shrimp, fried bean curd, fresh rice noodles, bean sprouts, fried shallots and a paste with candlenuts, lemongrass, turmeric, belacan, galangal, etc. I didn’t use cockles or garnish with hard-boiled eggs.

I won’t go into the detail, but I became violently ill the day after eating my soup and have been seriously out of sorts since. I was too sick to eat the Thanksgiving food I’d spent a lot of time on and am just starting to get a normal appetite. I honestly don’t think the laksa is to blame since James also ate some with no ill effects. But like being turned off from root beer floats after a bad childhood experience, I’m afraid that I’m now going to have bad laksa connotations. That’s a damn shame.

Berry Picking

Not all Strawberry shops are created equal. Some are cramped, some are sprawling. The Union Square location kind of sucks, while Grand Central's might be my favorite. And it's mostly about the shoes because I'm less than enthusiastic about their middle-of-the-road misses offerings . There will always be at least one pair I would like (often more) and they're rarely over $39.99. I like to set my limit at $25 for this genre of shoes, though. The stock is similar to Century 21 really, but condensed and not as manic. And also like Century 21, whether of not they'll actually have your size in stock is a crapshoot. I don't know if I'm just easily pleased footwear-wise (I don't think so) but there's always something that suits me and people often seem surprised when I mention Strawberry if asked where I got a particular pair of shoes. It's a step up from Rainbow's shoe department, though not a massive step.

Strawberry * 129 E. 42nd. St., New York, NY (and elsewhere)

E. Village Banh Mi

I’m really fascinated by the idea of Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches in the East Village. Normally, I’d be wary of banh mi in that neighborhood, but if I’m correct one of the owners is a child of the An Dong clan. I’m hardly ever on Ave. B these days, but next time I’ll make a pit stop.

Legal Sea Foods

I love a good New Jersey chain restaurant, thats no secret, but Legal Sea Foods doesnt really fit into the Outback Steakhouse/Olive Garden/Chilis mold. It does sit right next to Ruby Tuesdays in the Garden State Plaza, but I think its trying to be more. And for some reason I can deal with an upscale Boston chain while the Napa Valley Grille in the same mall drives me nuts just on principle.

Sometimes I fear my fascination with chain eateries will cease to be the occasional amusement and that at some point I will have crossed over into the realm of typical customer. (I certainly don't think of myself as a “yuppie.” Lord, who would unless they were trying to be truly ‘80s retro, but I am white, live in a relatively affluent, peaceful tree lined Brooklyn enclave and enjoy food and wine. I don't partake in much sushi or chardonnay and barely earn enough to cover basic expenses.) The mousy, wire-rimmed glasses and office lady sweater duster look hasnt overtaken me yet. And so far, James isnt into shaker knits and pleats. We witnessed these old before their time twosomes, as well as merry divorcees bragging about reverting to their maiden names (and drinking the exact same Cabernet Sauvignon I have at home). Ill revel in Legal Sea Foods, but I refuse to be them.

You are reminded you arent truly fine dining because the waitstaff is a little overzealous. Our guy was manic (which was further proven by his giant, animated bubbly male handwriting on the bill) totally overdoing it like he really took to heart being told to compliment the customers choices during training. We ordered the seafood dip and he spazzed out, “thats my favorite, no one ever orders it.” Ok, fine, he couldve stopped there, but continued with vigorous disgust, “I don't know why no one ever orders it. It makes me sick!” Yikes, Ok.

After the crab dip so wonderful and misunderstood that it made our waiter sick I had the shrimp trio, which contained wood grilled, baked and stuffed, and coconut varieties. I also went starch crazy with my two sides and tried the jalepeno cheddar polenta (which was abnormally enormous, easily twice the size of Jamess portion) and baked squash, which was actually quite good: buttery, charred around the cubed edges and tossed with appropriately seasonal dried cranberries.

I left feeling slightly dirty and a tiny bit closer to impending suburbanhood. But at least I have yet to set foot in Napa Valley Grille.

Legal Sea Foods *One Garden State Plaza,Paramus, NJ