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Heavy Hearted

This is the first year that I haven’t had any Valentine’s plans on Feb. 14 proper (though it’s still not too late for a Norbit viewing later tonight). I took James out to Ureña last night (my non-home computer crashes every time I try uploading my ever-so-important take on this restaurant) and he was intending to take me out to Moto tomorrow evening. But I’m starting to get scared with all this blizzard shit. Because I’m a nervous nellie, I checked all American Airlines flights from La Guardia to O’Hare today and they’ve been cancelled. If this shit keeps up till tomorrow morning someone’s going to be in a world of hurt (I haven’t decided who yet). It’s not like we can change our reservation on such short notice either (and I’ve wasted a lot of time crafting a jam-packed itinerary that includes deep dish pizza, carnitas, birria, brats and kugelis with detailed subways and walking directions). I’m very afraid that this is shaping up to be the worst day after Valentine’s Day ever.

My favorite illiterate romantic photo from yesterday's internets.


*Ureña is now Pamplona

I don’t tend to revisit higher end restaurants, even when I’ve had a remarkable meal. There are such an overwhelming number of options in NYC (sometimes I wonder if living in a second-tier city would be more manageable food-wise and otherwise). I could eat at a new-to-me establishment weekly and barely make a dent in my to-try list by year’s end. But I thought Ureña warranted a second look, especially since it’d been almost a year since my first visit. And lord knows the creative yet un-flashy (some might say frumpy by New York standards, on the other hand, it looks like an respectable, non-casino restaurant in Las Vegas) restaurant might not last until next winter.

They have dimmed the lights, which was a criticism when they first opened (moody is nice but it makes crisp flash-less photo taking problematic) Service is gracious and never stuffy. With recent attention drawn to discrimination lawsuits, I couldn’t help but note that the wait staff was entirely Hispanic. I have no issues with accents, but when we were presented with an amuse both James and I thought our server said martian rather than mushroom. We kind of hoped we’d heard correctly since a shot of Martian soup would’ve been brilliantly bonkers. I would expect such a thing more from Moto, but that’s tomorrow evening’s dinner (assuming that this blizzard lets up soon).

We started with cocktails at the bar. I had a Martine with lemongrass, bitter orange and possibly rum (I’m blanking on the spirit). With dinner we chose a sparkling, scarlet Mont-Ferrant Rosé Cava. I love the promotional copy I found this morning, “a spring like cava, perfect for young people.” See, I’m a young person. Actually, we were easily the least decrepit diners in the room for about half or our meal. The narrow space was around 75% full when we arrived and only 25% occupied when we left around 10pm. That might not be good business for them but it’s rare to be granted a spacious four-seater for two with an empty table separating you from the nearest party.

Unfortunately, a bland (the guy was prep school attractive, the female was dull, ponytailed and turtlenecked), likely younger twosome with MBAs (which I obviously wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t been squawking about their degrees) were eventually seated next to us. The male sent a bottle of wine back, which I almost could’ve predicted. (I’ve never understood the etiquette. I always thought that it was the customer’s responsibility to choose wisely with or without advice from a sommelier, but sending a wine back would only be warranted if there was something wrong with the wine, not that the flavor wasn’t to your liking. Anyone who sends wine back becomes an automatic asshole in my eyes. It’s not impressive.)

Tarta de Ropa Vieja:
foie gras, duck confit, short ribs, suckling pig and micro greens.

There wasn’t any mention of cheese so the dairy was a surprise. I’m assuming that the different meats had been shredded and combined into one carnivorous powerhouse. Everything was placed on crouton toasts.

de Cordero: lamb and goat cheese, Bunuelo de Queso: manchego, chorizo and stout beer fritter, Piquillo Relleno.

I couldn’t really taste the sausage in the fitters but these liquid-centered cheese balls were insanely good. I could eat a bowl-full. These were James’s tapas and I didn’t try the other two dishes.

Pato en Dos Texturas:
poached duck breast, confit thigh, braised red cabbage, carmelized quince, parsnip puree, star anise sauce.

Perfect for the weather. I was mildly wary of duck minus its crispy skin but there were no disappointments. The breast strips were soft and tender but obviously not as meltingly so as the confit. The quince nearly mimicked chunky applesauce, star anise was a vivid aromatic touch and along with the tangy, sweet cabbage the dish was lifted out of the Spanish realm.

Cochinillo Confitado:
confit suckling pig, granny smith apple puree, shitake mushrooms, wilted green leaf lettuce, truffle sauce.

I’d wanted to try this but I realized that it was essentially the same dish I had last March but with squares of suckling pig instead of pork belly. It went to James.

Bunuelo De Chocolate Y Crema Catalina:
chocolate and creme filled fritter, orange and dried apricot puree, yogurt sorbet.

Our second fritters of the night. The little puffs were gone in an instant. I don’t think the original pastry chef, Caryn Stabinsky, is still around. According to their barebones website, Alex Ureña is listed as pastry chef. (2/13/07)

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Sunday Night Special: Black Bean Shrimp & Braised Eggplant

I take back what I said not too long ago about Sundays not counting calorically. After last weekend’s Super Bowl (I just realized that Superbowl isn’t one smooshed word, and I’m not about to go back and fix it) Sunday bounty, I had to cool my jets this weekend with healthy Chinese inspired recipes from A Spoonful of Ginger, a practical cookbook that tweaks Asian classics while retaining the spirit of the original. I should really use it more often.

Black_bean_scallopsI tweaked Nina Simonds adaptation of steamed shrimp with black bean sauce and substituted scallops. I didn’t have plain black beans but a prepared sauce that already contained garlic so I added slightly less of that ingredient. You briefly bake the seafood in a foil-covered dish, then allow it to steam for about ten minutes. Of course, I could’ve just used a steamer, but it’s one less thing to worry about on stovetop in a cramped kitchen. Supposedly, fermented black beans are good for depression, stress and ridding toxins. It couldn’t hurt to eat them every now and then.

Spicy_braised_eggplantA curried pumpkin dish was suggested as a side but I thought a stewy eggplant braise would be better. I spruced up the recipe by adding a small handful of chopped cilantro and a drizzle of chile oil at the end. The two layers of chile heat really popped and the eggplant was way more unctuous than you’d expect with the tiny amount of fat that was used. Hmm, the side note accompanying this recipe is a little less appetizing than the relieving depression bit from the former. It says that eggplant is used to ease bowl movements with hemorrhoids in Chinese medicine. Good to know, huh?

Baked Black Bean Shrimp

2 pounds large shrimp (16 to 20 per pound), shelled and deveined
Shrimp Marinade:
3 ½ tablespoons rice wine or sake
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

1 tablespoon canola or corn oil

2 tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons minced scallions, white part only
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried chile flakes

¾ cup chicken broth
2 ½ tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine or sake
1 tablespoon sugar
1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons minced scallion greens

Rinse the shrimp, drain, and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut along the back and open each shrimp to butterfly it. Put the shrimp in a bowl and add the marinade. Toss lightly to coat, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Arrange the butterflied shrimp shell side down, with the flaps open, in 1 or 2 heatproof quiche or pie pans.

Heat a wok or heavy skillet over high heat, add the oil, and heat until very hot. Add the seasonings and stir-fry for about 10 seconds with a slotted spoon or spatula until fragrant. Add the premixed sauce and cook, stirring, to prevent lumps, until it has thickened. Then spoon the sauce over the butterflied shrimp and cover with aluminum foil. (Alternatively, you may place the fish pan in a steamer over boiling water.)

Bake the shrimp on the middle rack for about 8 to 9 minutes, or until they have become opaque. (Steam for 10 to 12 minutes.) Uncover the pan and sprinkle the minced scallion greens over the shrimp. Serve immediately with steamed rice and a vegetable.

Serves 6

Saucy Braised Eggplant

1 1/2 pounds eggplant, ends trimmed, and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch thick slices
1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons hot chile paste
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

Braising Liquid:
1 1/2 cups chicken broth (vegetable broth can be substituted)
2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine or sake
1 tablespoon Chinese black vinegar or Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon canola oil
2 cups red onion cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium red pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 tablespoons minced scallion greens

Arrange eggplant slices on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels and sprinkle both sides with salt. Let them sit 1 hour, then pat them dry and cut into 1 1/2-inch-long pieces.

Prepare the Seasonings and mix the Braising Liquid ingredients in a bowl. Set by the stove.

Heat a large flame-proof casserole or Dutch oven. Add the oil and heat until hot. Add the chile paste and stir-fry for 5 seconds over high heat, then add the other seasonings and stir-fry until fragrant. Add the red onions and sauté about 1 1/2 minutes, then add the red pepper and sauté another minute. Add the eggplant cubes and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the braising liquid, cover, and heat until boiling. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and cook about 12 to 14 minutes, or until the eggplant is tender. Uncover, increase the heat to high, and cook until the sauce is reduced to a glaze. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle with the scallion greens.

Serves 6

Recipes from A Spoonful of Ginger by Nina Simonds. Knopf, 1999

Flor’s Kitchen

Every so often I wonder whether it’s worth writing about restaurants that aren’t terribly exciting, new or novel. I mean, why bother. It’s not like I have endless amounts of free time to fill (though it frequently seems that way). But my original Shovel Time mission was mission-less. I was and am keeping an online dining journal not performing a public service or breaking restaurant news or god forbid going behind the scenes of anything or unearthing gossip (which is all the rage in the mid-’00s).

Flors_empanaditasWhich brings me to Flor’s Kitchen (which just closed its East Village location—oh look, I’m being newsy). There’s nothing remarkable about it, despite being one of the few Venezuelan restaurants in the city. It’s neither offensive nor amazing in looks or taste. It’s certainly cozy enough to serve as a satisfactory date place. It was teeming with couples of all ages, races and persuasions on my Friday night visit. The prices won’t kill you either, though you could easily spend $100 for two without realizing how you racked up three digits.

Flors_cachapa_con_quesoThe only dish that I loved was the sweet and salty cachapa, a paisa cheese covered corn pancake that takes fifteen minutes to prepare. Our mixed filling empanaditas were fine enough (the garnish looked a little sad), the dipping sauce, which tasted like a thicker homemade Sriracha, was a stand out.

Flors_pabellon_criolloPart of the problem is my ambivalence towards rice and beans with stewed meats. I can’t generally get worked up over the Latin American mainstay, which isn’t to say I haven’t had good renditions. Is that blasphemy? You could enjoy Japanese food without adoring rice, fish and soy sauce, but it might be counter productive. I ate most of my pabellón criollo and it wasn't disappointing. I probably should’ve tried an arepa but thought that might be overkill with the cachapa.

I’d be curious to hear what a Venezuelan food lover thinks of Flor’s. Trendier Caracas Arepa Bar gets more press but that only means so much.

Flor’s Kitchen * 170 Waverly Pl., New York, NY

Tierras Colombianas

Tierras_columbianas_wall_artI’m not sure what it is with Colombians and excess (maybe it has more to do with my ordering style). Over the summer I became acquainted with potato chip, avocado, mayo, ham, bacon and tomato topped perros calientes. This weekend I met the bandeja campesina, an overflowing country plate. It makes me wonder whether a city platter would be heartier or more delicate.

Tierras_columbianas_arepa_chorizoI immediately liked Tierras Colombianas. The spacious all-booths set up and self-promoting paper placemats make me happy like a Latin Denny’s. Red foil paper and hearts were festively bedecking random surfaces. I particularly liked the cut out heart tucked beneath the wall art golden god like he’d crapped it out (ok, maybe he was just sitting on it). Romantic.

Tierras_columbianas_bandeja_campesinaWe ordered an arepa and chorizo appetizer despite anticipating massive entrees. Colombian arepas are smaller, paler and chewier than better-known Venezuelan versions. They don’t immediately give when cut with the side of a fork. The chorizo was tangy, green-speckled and herby and bursting with cumin. We ordered it to try a few bites, knowing it would likely end up in a doggie bag.

Tierras_columbianas_placemat_1James’s bistec empanizado, breaded beef cutlet, which also appeared on at least half of other diners’ plates, was practically the size of a deflated football. But I got the whammy. There was nothing bucolic about the long crispy-fat strip of chicharron, thin grilled steak, maduros, white rice, soupy yellow-tinged beans, a third of an avocado, arepa and fried egg crowning the whole beautiful mess. A spoonful of genuinely spicy green salsa completed the picture.

Sure, the country plate is a couple meals in one, and that’s how I treated it. I skipped breakfast and made a late lunch and 1 am dinner out of it. Never mind that an ice cream sundae snuck in between those two feedings.

Tierras Colombianas * 8218 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, NY

Itzocan Bistro

Occasionally, I wonder why I rarely go uptown, and after four subways and over an hour standing, I remembered why. Bone-chilling weather and the F, J, 4 and 6 trains do somehow bolster the appetite.

Itzocan_bistro_goat_cheese_flanAnd you could do worse than Mexican ingredients, French technique and Bryan Adams’s greatest hits (segueing into the best of Paula Abdul) serenading you while you eat. I started with a goat cheese flan with epazote and jalapeño. I had expected a more literal silky flan texture, but the queso de cabra disk was more crumbly like a cheesecake quiche hybrid. The crumbles were more suited to eating with toast and lettuce, anyway.

Itzocan_bistro_seafood_pozoleI really wanted the ancho crusted duck breast but I had convinced myself that seafood would be marginally healthier and suitable for the weather, so I chose the jalapeño and oregano dotted pozole with mussels, snapper and giant head on shrimp instead. It was certainly in a different class than a weekends-only, hominy-heavy soup you might find at a tacqueria.

Itzocan_bistro_tequilla_chocolate_cakeLately I’ve been austerely attempting wine or dessert not and but Itzocan’s sweets didn’t sound run of the mill and I was happy to see that they hadn’t gone molten on me. Thankfully, no soft-centered, Mexican chocolate, cinnamon spiced cakes were to be found. We did go the chocolate cake route, though, sampling a rich tequila flavored version with brown sugar ice cream. 

On the F ride back home I spied that recent Look Book guy with walrusy facial hair (I’m still not clear why he merited a meta second look elsewhere) doing a crossword from one of those paperback puzzle books. At least it wasn’t Sudoku, I guess. I hovered near his prime seat because I’d pegged him for someone who’d get off at Delancey and I was right. It’s one of the few skills I have, deducing who’ll get off sooner on the subway and positioning myself accordingly. I just hope I didn't pick up any bedbugs.

Itzocan Bistro * 1575 Lexington Ave., New York, NY

Eddie’s Sweet Shop

After naively purchasing a silky teal-and-white Proenza Schouler for Target dress and thinking it would fit (I barely met the junior sizing restrictions when I was of appropriate age), it was already evening in Elmhurst. We’d already eaten a lunch that would suffice for dinner so we needed a non-edible distraction and decided on finding a movie. (In ‘94 a friend and I determined that a great punishment for a bet loser would be having to watch Nell on the big screen alone [out of curiosity, we ended up seeing it in the theater together and while non-good it didn’t live up to our punishing preconceptions]. Norbit strikes me as the modern version of this torture. But who am I to haughtily judge the black man dressing as obese black woman genre? I am fascinated how a lady so large as Rasputia has no cellulite. The more I think about it, the more I need to see Norbit—maybe on Valentine’s Day. I don’t have any plans for Feb. 14 proper.)

Neither of us had seen The Departed (which was intentional in my case) and it was still lingering at the moderately artsy/cheap theater in Forest Hills. I couldn’t picture where it was but as we started heading up Metropolitan Avenue I realized where we were and instantly remembered that Eddie’s Sweet Shop is right across the street from the movies. And miraculously there was an open parking spot on the corner, putting us spitting distance from both establishments.

We had 45 minutes until the 8:15 pm show time and I figured anyone who would’ve wanted to see this movie had already seen it so no stress on snagging seats (I was wrong, the theater was quite full. We were also easily the two youngest viewers in the audience. And for the record, old people are just barely less vocal and distracting than the rowdy teens who dominate the Court Street multiplex near me). We totally had enough time to split a sundae.

Eddie’s hadn’t changed a bit since my first and most recent visit nearly six and a half years ago (reminders of the swift passing of time completely freak me out). It was still manned by wholesome looking teens, old-timey and trinket-filled. The number of soda fountains with counter stools and spindly curlicue chairs is rapidly dwindling. Modernly garish Coldstone Creamery has more appeal, I guess. They don't burst into song at Eddie's, though they do play an '80s radio station. I honestly don't know which is more wrong. 

I find it hard to slow down and enjoy things properly so I struggled to savor my surroundings and scoops of ice cream. Surprisingly, it was James that said, “I don’t think I’m appreciating this,” which was an odd observation. I tried to concentrate and take in our shared creamy butter pecan, coffee chip and overflowing hot fudge before it melted. It’s funny that my initial inclination was to order a butter pecan and butterscotch sundae  since apparently that’s what I ordered on my last visit (see, this blog is good for something, after all). The perfect accompaniment was a short glass of water. I didn’t even have to ask, the young waitress offered, “I like water with hot fudge.” True, ice water and hot fudge is a great combo.

It’s frightening to think that my next Eddie’s visit could be in another six and a half years (I’ll be freshly forty…jesus christ). Though since the next NYC Trader Joe’s is bizarrely planned for a spot just a few blocks away, I’ll likely be back before 2013. (2/10/07)

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Is it fair to be suspicious of a poorly named, industrial-chic Cuban restaurant abutting the desolate Navy Yard, on the same block as one of the city’s scariest bars (don’t just take my word for it)? My initial concern was mediocre food but I later became more consumed with trying to interpret the vaguely sketchy shenanigans taking place around me.

The food was surprisingly un-bad, reasonably priced (most entrees were under $12) and the $8 mojitos were generous in size and potency. I felt tipsy after two, which is a rarity (I’m not a cheap date) and totally messed up the photos I’d taken.

It was difficult to not plow through the complimentary plate of squished and toasted garlic bread with three dips but I was pretending to be healthy and ordered a salad instead of something weighted down with rice and beans. A giant pile of lettuce covered with avocados, mango, grilled dark meat chicken, white cheese and fried onions is hardly austere, though I was unusually careful about only eating half (though I couldn’t bear to just leave half even though salads are pretty soggy and foul after a few hours. The thrifty gene in me still asked our sweet but spacey waitress to wrap up the remainders. Just the day before at Yemen Café, as frequently happens without warrant, James got all freaked out that our leftover louyabia and fateh we’d requested to go had been tossed in the trash. This has never happened in my life, though I shouldn’t have said that aloud on Thursday because Friday at Mojito I was to never see the rest of my salad again. Jinxed.) I also split an order of two empanadas, one chicken, one cheese, both more than edible.

Being in proximity to Pratt, projects and luxury lofts (Mojito is on the ground floor of the Chocolate Factory, which sounds vaguely dirty to me), the clientele is a total mixed bag. The tables were filled with a wonderful melting pot of African-American families, scruffy college kids and the mandatory white guy/Asian girl couple.

I noticed a tiny white guy in moccasin boots, who looked like a scrawny version of George on Grey’s Anatomy (I had to look that name up—that show is painful to watch) had been propping up the bar for most of our meal. He had a messy haired, white studded leather belt friend with him. At some point George left and came back in a bathrobe like he was the Howard Hughes of Wallabout (the revitalization-hyped neighborhood name that I just learned last week). Ok, and then I was like that’s cool that the two 300-pound black men who ordered take out, then ate out of round aluminum containers at the bar while staring down fellow diners were palling around with the artsy gay guys. Ah, sweet diversity. “Is that a housecoat?” was my favorite exclamation (it reminded me of a girl who used to call shorts short pants). At some point they all skulked into a back room, which I suspect leads into the condo complex.

In high school, whenever you’d see rockers (I attended an extremely hesher-heavy institution) hanging out with popular kids you knew something was up. Only drugs (and perhaps, consequently, sex) could bring the two worlds together. Clearly, Mojito is totally the place to be if you want to expand your social circle.

Mojito * 82 Washington Ave., Brooklyn, NY

NYC, We Have a Problem

I realize that over the years my focus has shifted. Lately, I write much more about food than I do about people and that makes me mildly sad. It’s harder to be candid in 2007 than 1997, and I don’t know if that’s a result of maturity or the evolution of the internet. Too many eyes, but there’s also more at stake. People just don’t appreciate bat shit behavior the way they used to, and NYC is surprisingly unforgiving of unprofessional quirks. Stalking and obsessing over humans is a surefire way to lose credibility yet scooping a new chef’s opening night menu or semi-scamming $320 dinners at Alain Ducasse is perceived as plugged in or hilarious (this New York Times article completely exemplifies why blogging about restaurants, particularly in a NYC milieu is so ick. Space_loveTheir whole M.O. is so not what I’m about that I don’t even know why I’m dwelling. It makes sites like Not Eating Out in New York even more relevant).

So, as I progress into object lover and lighten up with human fixations I’m thrilled to see that the delusional and lovesick still thrive in the rest of the country. I love today’s story about Lisa Nowak, a married astronaut who drove 900 miles in an adult diaper and disguise to kidnap the love interest of a fellow astronaut she believed she had a more than routine relationship with. Women like Lisa Nowak give me faith that the world hasn’t gone all effete and by the rules. Lisa Nowak could give a shit whether or not a restaurant is serving American prosciutto.

Buenos Aires

1/2 Apparently, Buenos Aires is a hot travel destination. Strangely, there were two separate articles (a 36 Hours and a Cultured Traveler) on the city in Sunday’s New York Times. They caught my attention since I’d recently eaten at an East Village restaurant named for the Argentinean capital. I’m definitely not an expert on the cuisine but the first thing that comes to mind is grass-fed beef. I’ll eventually branch out the more I sample this South American style but I’ve tended to stick with the parrillada in my few forays. I'm curious about matambre, which seems to be a jelly roll of  flank steak encircling a bunch of vegetables, hard boiled eggs and olives.

The mixed grill always ends up being more than you bargained for and a serving for one invariably feeds two. Even in Manhattan where portions tend to be smaller and prices higher, you still get quite a lot of meat for your money. I wonder if there’s a nouveau, or nuevo rather, rendition in the area with tiny cuts, unusual sides or stylish presentation. I kind of like the individual flame-licked table top grills you often receive; at Buenos Aires everything comes plated.

Buenos_aires_meat The bounty that appeared with their version of parrillada included skirt steak, ribs, pork sausage, blood sausage, sweetbreads and kidneys. I’m pretty sure that kidneys were not listed on the menu but they were most definitely on my plate. As expected, vivid green chimichurri is brought to the table, but a side of salsa also comes with the parrillada. I enjoy organ meats, especially morcilla. James does not so we rarely share one of these feasts (though he partook in leftover steak the next morning cooked with eggs and roasted potatoes. I let him have the pork sausage because despite liking hard cured charcuterie and blood sausage, I’m no fan of most squishy Italian-style links). He went for a simple filet mignon. You can choose from eight cuts of meat if you’re feeling single minded. Whether the beef is grass or corn fed, I’m not sure, though judging from the reasonable prices I’m guessing the latter. We got wonderfully crispy fries on the side and also split an order of baked spinach and cheese empanadas.

It’s easy to fall victim to meat overload but I was thankful for the padding after downing a few too many happy hour Makers Mark and sodas (and shots) at the new moderately cleaned up incarnation of The Continental. When was the last time you had $3 cocktail? Whisky and steak are perfect for fighting the temperature-in-the-teens chill.

Buenos Aires * 513 E. Sixth St., New York, NY