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Feud for Thought

I know chefs are hot these days (why else would Darren Star go from Sex and the City to Kitchen Confidential?) but it’s still odd to see a food-ish feud on Page Six, particularly since neither parties involved have much to do with NYC. I first read of this spat last week in the Chicago Sun-Times, where its appearance made more sense.

What doesn’t make sense is why the imaginative object of my fleeting fascination would blatantly sully a big name. Of course, I love to bad mouth, but then, I’m nobody.

If it’s true that poor Homaro fibbed or at least exaggerated the truth because Mariani panned his restaurant, that’s not very smart because it’s not like the facts couldn’t be verified.

That’s the problem with guys in their twenties—big ideas often trumps wise restraint (having passed my third decade a few years back, I now feel oh-so-much brighter). Or maybe Homaro speaks the truth and will be vindicated…and then make my food levitate or turn inside out or something.

A Cashew Apple a Day

I like the idea of fruit discards, despite not being a big fan of fruit. I was really bowled over when I learned not that many years ago that cashews are really kind of a byproduct of an apple-like fruit. Why wouldn’t Americans eat the fruit? I thought perhaps it would be hard to transport, too perishable, etc., but I’m now suspecting it’s because the fruit tastes like crap. (Or not, apparently an Indian company is making Kazkar Feni, a cashew apple liqueur.)

At least that’s the case with nutmeg fruit. I knew that nutmeg, the spice, is a grated giant seed, and that mace is the webby outer coating. But I’d never seen the fruit, which resembles apricot halves and was sold from liquid filled glass containers all over Penang. It took me a while to figure out these yellowish, floating, indented disks were nutmeg fruit. And while killing time at the airport, waiting for our flight to Kuala Lumpur, I noticed some vacuum sealed nutmegs in a bin with papaya and mango. The other two fruits are sweet and perfectly edible, so I figured nutmeg couldn’t be far off.


I didn’t open them until I got back home, and decided to bring them (along with green bean cookies, which were an unexpected hit) to work as a surprise scary gift to share with coworkers. And scare, they did. They emitted a strong medicinal smell. I’m not sure if they were pickled, fermented or what, but they were beyond pungent. I don’t know if you’re supposed to eat them plain, but it was akin to eating a ginger root like an apple. A little goes a long way. I had to toss the whole bag. Despite its detractors, I’d take durian over nutmeg, any day.

Plaza Garibaldi

This was my first stop while doing <A href=>michelada research</a>, so I came across a little hesitant in ordering the spicy drink. My michelada naiveté totally got me pegged as a culinarily ignorant gringa. After we decided to stay and order food, we kept getting steered away from the things we actually wanted and pushed towards items like quesadillas. When James ordered something with chorizo and I asked for the pernil torta we were informed, “thats pork, you know.” This would be the first of two exact same warnings at Mexican restaurants that week. Where did the idea that Americans dont like pork come from? Do they think all New Yorkers are Jewish? It always weirds me out when wait staff tries talking me out of items I'm interested in, especially when the dish in question isnt particularly odd. But even if I wanted to try lambs eyeballs or guinea pigs, that would be my bad choice if I didnt end up liking it.

Plaza Garibaldi * 89-12 Roosevelt. Ave., Corona, NY

Sorta Big in Japan

Japanese style doesn?t necessarily conjure up utilitarian fleece, corduroy and cashmere. Maybe I've seen too much street fashion a la Fruits. Obviously, the entire island nation doesn't sport pink hair, furry legwarmers and inflatable props. Uniqlo has been described as the Japanese Gap, which I wouldn?t wholly agree with. James heard about it somewhere (lord knows where, it's not like he's plugged into fashion media) and was gunning to go because he was under the impression that it was like the Gap of our youth, meaning basics in lots of colors, more specifically cords in shades other than the dulled-down fall tones dominating places like J. Crew.

Eschewing the straight from Sweden to midtown H&M approach, Uniqlo decided somewhat strangely to open their U.S. flagship in a small scale, run-down (though currently under renovation) Middlesex county mall. Perhaps they're testing the waters in a less trend-driven suburban locale. This is my new favorite part of New Jersey. It's relatively quick from Brooklyn, through Staten Island, and not as overrun as seemingly more affluent Bergen County. For example, Garden State Plaza has Hugo Boss and Louis Vuitton where Menlo Park Mall still has an early '80s sign out front, Benihana across the street, Spencer Gifts (actually, Garden State Plaza does too) and a dollar store (where I bought a bunch of totally unnecessary candy). Edison and surrounding townships contain all my favorites like the best Hong Kong Supermarket ever, Trader Joes with wine, an un-ghetto Costco, good dim sum, tons of Indian restaurants and a Dairy Queen. Now that's living.


Admittedly, I happen to be a fan of the cheap, sparkly, $25 and under, six-month shelf life aesthetic. So, $79 cashmere cardigans and simple, solid color tees and turtlenecks didn't do much for me. I did, however, purchase a lightweight black, slightly fitted (perhaps a little too fitted–I was afraid an Asian XL might not be so extra or large. The predicament certainly wasn't helped by our later lunch at the on site Cheesecake Factory) windbreaker, which is sure to guarantee the torrential rain that plagued all of last week will let up. James fared better, buying up a couple pairs of pants, a butter yellow corduroy oxford, and three-for-$10 cute colored argyle socks.

I think two more New Jersey locations are in the works. I assume Uniqlo will eventually jump the Hudson. I can see it doing well with the Real Simple audience and organic baby food, no-to-little make up, SUV-owning set who inhabit my neighborhood (Carroll Gardens) and environs (minus Red Hook).

Uniqlo * Menlo Park Mall, Rt. 1 & Parsonage Rd, Edison, NJ

Cheesecake Factory Edison

Sure, the light bulb was one of the worlds great inventions, but can glass encased filaments hold a candle to the Cheesecake Factory? These sprawling suburban chains are few and far between in the NYC area, so its only fitting that such a culinary innovator (fried macaroni and cheese, anyone?) would be in Edison, NJ. While seeking out the first American Uniqlo, we were ecstatic to discover Menlo Park Mall also housed a bustling Cheesecake Factory.


Cfrangoon I’m still not quite clear what its raison d’etre is, other than cheesecake, of course. Red Lobster is seafood, Olive Garden is Italian, Outback Steakhouse is about as Australian as P.F. Changs is Chinese, but they have focus. Only one page of the menu and a glass case near the front of the restaurant are devoted to their namesake dessert. The rest of the ten-plus-page menu is a hodgepodge. And the Atlantic City casino meets ’90s Adam Tihany décor only complicates matters further.


It’s best to put such matters out of your head, suspend belief and live in the CF moment. Order a passion fruit ice tea, share a crispy crab wonton appetizer and then order monstrous barbecue ranch chicken salad (that looked like ais kacang if you squinted your eyes), and pretend it resembles something healthy. But save room for white chocolate chunk macadamia cheesecake. This was my lovely meal. Next time Ill try a glass of “The Cheesecake Factory,” a merlot specially bottled by Robert Mondavi. Pure class.

CfsaladAn aside: It’s odd how quickly we become sensitized to new rules. Smoking in bars feels like a tiny luxury, but seeing smoking in restaurants seems almost archaic. It wasnt that long ago that the smoking/non smoking section was perfectly acceptable. And I don’t have a problem with cigarettes (though it was strange to be blowing hundreds of dollars in Hong Kong, seated in the nonsmoking section millimeters from Germans exhaling smoke all over our overpriced beef) but it always seems weird that New Jersey chain diners dont care. Maybe Ive been living in over privileged, raising-a-stink over everything Carroll Gardens for too long. I mean, what about the children?

I should’ve thought twice about ordering a salad since I knew I’d only eat half in order to justify ordering cheesecake too. Salads dont exactly travel well. And I’m not one of those picky put sauces on the side folks, but CF goes overboard with their dressing. It was like I’d ordered soup and salad. But being the cheapskate that I am, I attempted to rescue and revive my leftover “salad” which was really more like coleslaw with corn, beans, avocado and chicken, by straining it in a colander for a second lunch. Yes, I am gross and desperate.


Before: s.w. coleslaw slush


After: slightly less slushy

Cheesecake Factory * 455 Menlo Park Dr., Edison, NJ

Taco Chulo

Ok I didn't actually eat there, just drank a beer cocktail for research purposes. But I was with two members of their target audience: Williamsburg vegetarians, and they loved it. I guess that makes me a Carroll Gardens carnivore, though that sounds hideous.

We arrived around 10:30pm, a half hour before they stop serving food and it becomes alcohol-only. Our waiter's admonishment was highly amusing, "I want to warn you, after 11pm there's a dj. It gets very different in here." Uh, ok. So, they were playing hip hop when we were seated–what would happen 30 minutes later? Wham and Kajagoogoo is what happened. Thanks for the head's up, guy. There's nothing like music from middle school to make you feel thoroughly decrepit.

Taco Chulo * 318 Grand St., Brooklyn, NY


I dont really understand the catalyst for the bbq craze that seems to have swept the city in the past year. Not that I'm complaining, but I'm certainly neither bbq addict nor aficionado (duh, Ive eaten a Dallas BBQ by choice). I cant discern which wood is being used, or tell how the meat has been smoked by the color of the flesh, or speak at length on regional styles. But I do like barbecued meat, particularly anything porcine.

I had a Friday night urge and wanted to try someplace I'd never been. Smoked, in the East Village, seemed small-portion, big-prices off putting. RUB rankled me slightly with the Righteous Urban Barbecue acronym, but it has the Paul Kirk pedigree, which is more than many of the newcomers have to offer.

The Chelsea space is pretty bare bones, though hardly as no-frills as what youd find down south. I should've been trying the pork ribs, but they come solo, just ribs, and I like variety. While I do like barbecue, its not the sort of food that Ill eat till I'm breathless (like Thai food). I'd prefer lots of smaller tastes over one big entrée, so I tried a barbecue sampler where you can choose different meats and sides. I went for two and two and picked pulled pork, beef brisket, mixed greens (collards, mustard and kale) and baked beans, which were full of salty pork chunks. I liked the pulled pork best, beef brisket second and house made pastrami (that James ordered) third, but thats primarily because pastrami isnt one of my favorites in the first place. I prefer corned beef, even though I'm not sure what the difference is. It's definitely fattier.

In addition to the pastrami, other atypical offerings included szechuan smoked duck, which Ive heard is quite good, and deep fried ribs. Both are items I'd consider upon a second visit. You dont want to go wild on a maiden restaurant voyage, its best to assess standards first.

RUB * 208 23rd St., New York, NY

Dressed for Success

Up until this soppy cool week, I was on a perverse fast food salad kick. I got it into my head that I’d somehow save money and calories by eating the pre-prepped greens. At least as opposed to those midtown delis with salad bars that I end up going overboard on with mismatched crap (sesame oily green beans, basil flecked tomatoes and pickled jalepeno grilled chicken strips all cavorting in the same plastic take out container is kind of wrong). And I also steer clear of the pick-a-mix tossed salad stations because it’s always a mob scene, I hem and haw over what toppings to choose and then the whole thing ends up costing over $7.

The fast food salad route keeps it under $5 (my ideal lunch limit), comes portion controlled and isn’t crazy unhealthy if you eat half the dressing packet or less (I’d rather eat less regular dressing than more low fat gunk) and skip the croutons. But I do feel weird inexplicable shame when I step through these chain restaurant doors. It’s not like I was raised in a natural foods, anti-establishment family.

So far, I’ve tried McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Au Bon Pain, but this isn’t where I rate and assess—I’ll save that for a different rainy day (besides, Slate already taste tested a few years back. Not that that would stop me from compiling my own results). No, what I’m here for now is to alert the world to a disturbing trend, something wholly un-American.

I’ve decided that the Bacon Ranch Salad is the best of their so-so offerings. I’ve had it maybe four times in the past month, and not once did it come with ranch dressing. Usually, the cashier will just toss something random in the bag, sometimes full fat Caesar, other times low fat balsamic vinaigrette. Today, I took charge of my destiny and asked if I could get the ranch dressing. I’m not even ranch crazy, it just seemed appropriate since the name of the salad implied that particular condiment as a component.

Well, they were out of it. Has it ever even existed or is it so darn popular that by 1:30 pm it had all disappeared? Maybe there’s a ranch shortage in the U.S. (We barely averted a Katrina-induced tabasco catastrophe.) It’s a McDonald’s mystery—and no, I’m not loving it.

Ridgewood, New and Used

It was strange to see Kredens in today’s New York Times Under $25 review since I only became vaguely aware of its existence three days ago. For three years I lived at the intersection of Fresh Pond Rd. and Woodbine St. where Kredens now stands. Despite my fondness for food, I very rarely ate in the neighborhood. The pickings were pretty slim, mostly pizza and fast food chains. I only regret never trying Bosna-Express, which now has an Astoria location, if I’m correct. For being a predominately Polish and heavily Eastern European area, that culture never surfaced in dining establishments as it has in Greenpoint.

This past Sunday I made my bimonthly or so trek to the Williamsburg-Ridgewood border for a Western Beef excursion. We rarely drive any farther up Metropolitan Ave., at least not since moving to Brooklyn a few years back. But we wanted to hit that big mess of a thrift store on Wyckoff Ave., off the Bushwick-Ridgewood border and decided to detour along Fresh Pond Rd.

I wasn’t even sure that the resale shop still existed because I hadn’t been in years. They used to have a greeting card section full of ‘70s get well cards and that Flavia crap that my grandma gets off on. The cards, which I still have about eight of because they’re so awesomely bizarre, aren’t quite like the touching ones on her website. Mine are for troubled children, as evidenced below. The adorable/disturbing owl was drawn by Rena Hunnicut of Borger, Texas who won a National Association for Retarded Citizens art contest. A treat from the same thrift shop.


Inside: If this happens to you, just remember that it's okay to smile and look away. It shows you have courage inside and that you believe in yourself.


Inside: thinking of you

By NYC standards, the space is sprawling, and hardly picked over, though with the eastern Williamsburg line of demarcation constantly expanding I’m sure it’s being encroached. I’ll admit there is a fetid quality to the store, it’s not suburban Goodwill shiny and organized or even at a Salvation Army level of acceptableness. The eerie back room stacked with plywood armoires and particle board TV hutches smells like something died or possibly relieved itself inside. But at least the junkiness keeps the scavenger spirit alive.

Fresh Pond hadn’t changed much, they did knock down a diner for a drive-thru Commerce Bank (apparently, Ridgewood hasn’t made the same upper middle class stink as Park Slope), Maasbach’s had been turned into another branch of the mediocre Corato’s Pizza. I’d always considered this corner of Queens the land that time forgot, and was pleased to see my notions weren’t being challenged.

What was new were a small handful of what seemed to be Polish restaurants, like all of a sudden residents had the same bright idea. I didn’t feel inspired enough to stop (admittedly, borscht, pierogies and the like aren’t in my top ten cuisine repertoire) but I couldn’t help but think how welcome these diversions would’ve been six years ago. I guess somehow the New York Times has also picked up on this new Polish food growth spurt.

Thankfully, the thrift store whose name I can’t recall, mostly because I’m not sure it has one, was still there. I was horrified by their “moving to a new location” signs in the front window, but James thought it was a ploy. Not me, what kind of ploy would that be? A barber shop had taken over the formerly adjoined space where all the paper ephemera existed like my much loved greeting cards. But the bulk of the space was intact.

Books and magazines have always been a favored section for me, but theirs is a messy set of poorly lit shelves hidden in the back. I could barely make out the titles on book spines, but I hit a mini jackpot with the periodicals. There was a pile of early ‘90s Gourmets, (some with mouse droppings stuck to the spines) that grabbed my attention. I like seeing who was writing at the time, and weirdly, almost none of the names rang a bell (Nina Simonds, Laurie Colwin and Gerald Asher, excepted). The oddest aspect was how damn dated everything looked, both the content and ads. Weird Victoriana clip art, shoulder pads, big eyebrows, big jewels, big hair—only twelve years ago?

Granted, it doesn’t take much to make me feel old, but the ‘90s are still pretty fresh in my mind. I was in college in the early part of that decade, art school nonetheless, and I don’t recall style, fashion and design being so…so, ‘80s. But I’ve always felt like the first three years of a decade still mimic their predecessors. We’re just now establishing the ‘00s. 2000 to 2003 totally belong to the last century.

Does this scream ‘90s to you? 


Relationship Butcher

I swear, Western Beef just might end up being a relationship disintegrator. Despite the inexplicable joy James and I glean from this borderland, no frills grocery mecca, we always end up in a screaming spat by the time we get out to the car. And it's because of the check out line.

Not the length of it, which is always long, or the teeming carts (sometimes two) that take eons to unload (ours never makes it up to the half way mark) or the repeatedly rejected food stamp cards or even the nasty confrontational woman who got caught hiding a ham in her baby stroller. It's the physical space and willy-nilly procedure that raises my blood pressure and tries my patience. I like order and rule following, which is contrary to WB's philosophy.

The check-out aisles are super narrow and there isn't space for more than one cart at the end of the register before you hit the front wall. So, it's tight. No one can ever figure out whether it's optimal to be in front of or behind your cart. I usually stand in front and load the groceries on the belt. Ideally, James is behind, eventually the cart and my body move up to the end where the bag person sometimes stands, James pays (I pay him back later, don't worry) and we leave unfettered.

But it never goes like this. Some freak will have two carts and leave one behind so there's an empty ownerless one in front of me and our empty behind me. So, I'm sandwiched, the bagger starts putting food in the front one, James can't pay because he?s stuck behind our original cart, and there's no room to push or put it anywhere to get it out of the way. Meanwhile, a family will be breathing down our necks, so it's not like you can back up an inch either.

As silly as it seems, this situation will always cause a fight, which is ridiculous because it's not like I have much control over the check-out experience. Western Beef is becoming anxiety attack central, and that's just a shame.

Western Beef * 47-05 Metropolitan Ave., Ridgewood, NY

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