Skip to content

Archive for

The Smith

Can a chain pizzeria convincingly transform into a bistro? I’ll admit the novelty of eating lamb schnitzel (I’m hell bent on this pseudo-Teutonic trend taking off) in a former Pizzeria Uno was The Smith’s main attraction for me. It did feel a little strange. Eons ago, I actually dined at the Pizzeria Uno, but I can’t remember a thing about it. Thankfully, I’ve been documenting this crap for eons.

The_smith_interiorI’m fairly certain that the room was less airy before, it must be all the new sparkling white subway tile. Or maybe it just seemed so bright and open because the room was nearly empty at 6:30pm. During the course of our meal tables began filling up with two distinct groups: college kids and over 45s, both likely to live within walking distance. Pesky millennials and boomers. Strange, because a lot of the surveys I find at work compare the attitudes of those two demographics exclusively, like that unpleasant Gen X has ceased to exist. Apparently, the 30-45s’ opinions don’t matter and they don’t early-bird dine at The Smith on a Wednesday.

The_smith_chips_with_gorgonzola_fonThe menu reflects this schism, too. Cheaper bar food (wings and burgers) and simple but pricier dishes (skate with brown butter and short ribs) play both ends of the spectrum. I suppose hot potato chips with gorgonzola fondue are kind of a high fat bridge. Every table, including ours, ordered these freshly fried potatoes drizzled with a mild blue cheese sauce. They do get soggy quickly, and the portion is indecent for two but after a couple beers it seems sensible.

The_smith_lamb_schnitzelSo yes, I had to try the schnitzel even though I’m not fanatical about breaded pan-fried cutlets. You can never taste the meat, just the crust, and mashed potatoes only add to the starch. In a way, lamb is kind of fitting for this preparation since the flavor is distinct enough to not get completely buried by crumbs.

The_smith_ny_strip_steakJames insisted I was picking a fight by bringing up a survey about 86% of Americans bringing someone they’d been dating for less than a year home for the holidays (again with the surveys—I never considered myself one of those work/life imbalanced people, but I’m starting to wonder) so he wouldn’t let me take a picture of his strip steak with peppercorn sauce. Not only do I spout useless statistics at dinner, I hold up the meal with my camera, too—no wonder no one wants to celebrate Christmas with me. I did snap a photo anyway.

The_smith_peanut_butter_sundaeThat would’ve been it for me, but James was into the dessert menu. Normally, I would’ve been too because it’s all fluffy sundaes with cake but I was all schnitzel’d out. Everything we’d eaten felt overwhelmingly heavy, and he probably ordered the richest dessert, too. I can’t recall its the cutesy name, but it was constructed from chocolate cake, peanut butter ice cream, chocolate syrup, chunks of peanut nougat candy and whipped cream. It almost killed me, but was worth it for future reference. Do you know how hard it is to find an ice cream sundae at midnight?

The nicest touch might’ve been free sparkling water. We were brought a whole second bottle unprompted, even after we were 95% done with our food. Hmm, it doesn’t bode well when water is the most impressive part of a meal. But if I lived nearby and was under 30 or over 45, I might return.

The Smith * 55 Third Ave., New York, NY

Mr. Belvedere was Edgier

First I was repulsed by this gay-for-yourself Dolce & Gabbana jewelry ad. I was less bothered by self-on-self make out sessions than by the glossy juvenile style, like they’d let a gifted 12-year-old homosexual create the commercial of their dreams. It left me with that “it can’t be for reals” feeling that Sarah Jessica Parker’s stumper of a perfume ad induced.

Then on Thanksgiving I started getting barraged by these Terry Richardson Belvedere Vodka ads with Nolita gargoyle Vincent Gallo crouching under a table. Eek. And they're frustratingly absent online as of this writing. It almost makes me long for the Art Institutes’s simplicity.


Now I’m waiting to see Dov Charney somehow involved with Dove’s Campaign for Real Women, and not just because they share three letters in common.

Prima Taste

1/2  Is eating laksa at a Singaporean chain restaurant in Shanghai any less blasphemous than shamelessly patronizing Pizza Hut? Well, we did both in the same afternoon and I feel very little guilt. It’s a rare vacation where we don’t indulge in our must-sample-everything second lunch, second dinner plan. And this was a rare vacation because Prima Taste enabled our only second lunch in China.

As much as I’m fond of all of Chinese food iterations (it’s strange how much loathing for Shanghainese cooking I’ve run across on the internet—no, I’m not calling anyone out) coconut milk, shrimp paste and fresh hot chiles suck me in like nothing else. I’m already planning (at least in my mind) a 2008 Malaysia excursion.

HamburgerhelperI was initially tempted by the out of place smell of belacan in a Beijing food court. It was the first Prima Taste restaurant I’d ever seen. I only knew the name from packaged spice pastes I bought at a Carrefour in Singapore a couple years ago. Apparently, they have one American branch in San Jose. I’ll admit the concept of brand-inspired restaurant is off putting. I wouldn’t be in a rush to eat at a Hamburger Helper café. But somehow Asians get away with that crap.

And the food’s not even bad. No, of course it wouldn’t get the Makansutra seal of approval, but not everyone is blessed with hundreds of hawker stalls to choose from. We don’t have any Singaporean food in NYC (nah, Singapore Café barely counts, it’s totally Chinese) so a Prima Taste wouldn’t offend me.


Admittedly, I wasn’t that hungry but I did get through most of my shrimp laksa. The broth was very lemak with fish cakes and quite a bit of chunky, shrimpy sambal that came already mixed in, no cockles. I’m still not sure why all my favorite food hails from hot, sweaty climates when I’m a firm believer in temperate weather. To me, laksa would be best enjoyed somewhere in the 60s, just like Shanghai in autumn.


I only had one bite of the char kway teow so I can’t fairly assess it. I’ve never had a version with flat and thin noodles mixed together—I’m sure sticklers would have a problem with that. I was kind of surprised that it contained crispy bits of fried pork lard, it’s not atypical but I don’t recall ever getting porky nuggets in Penang. See? Now, I have to go back to taste test more seriously.

Prima Taste * 3/F 1111 Zhao Jia Bang Rd., Shanghai, China

Wurst Ad Ever


It’s times like this where YouTube fails me. And I'm not savvy enough to make videos from DVRd television, so a still will have to suffice. A few weeks ago I started noticing a commercial for what appears to be a new international culinary program at the Art Institutes. Never mind that AI lacks the cache of CIA, the problem is that they use German cuisine to win over the viewer. Apparently, the students’ cooking is so authentic that they start to sprechen Deutsch. The secrets to bratwurst and kuchen revealed? Sign me up.

What I’m trying to figure out is if the Art Institutes are hopelessly out of touch with gastronomic trends or if they’re cutting edge. Based on the following tidbits from the past month, I declare the Art Institutes eerily prescient.

November 5th: Gridskipper maps out Berlin’s haute culinary haunts.

November 14th: the New York Post posited that a schnitzel revival is underway.

November 18th: The New York Times devoted nearly 3,000 words to neue Deutsche küche, a.k.a. new German cuisine.

November 21st: Eater predicts the lamb schnitzel at newcomer The Smith will be removed from the menu due to being “absurd.” A backlash already?

Someone has to put an end to the whole Spanish avant-garde thing, right?


I think I bungled my attempt to explore Hunan cuisine and I don’t know if I’ll be able to rectify that in NYC. Grand Sichuan has a few items from the region, but I can’t think of any dedicated restaurants. I’m all ears if anyone has suggestions.


Everything I read went on about how fiery the food is; hotter than Sichuan minus the peppercorns. I blandly mis-ordered, thinking Guyi was where I was meant to get the pork knuckle when it was actually Jishi. Oh well, the massive parcel of tender meat kept us occupied for some time. The slew of dried chiles were really more for looks, though. I enjoyed plucking wedges of meat from the gelatinous casing, though I do prefer the crispy exteriors associated with Filipino crispy pata or German schweinehaxe. Pork skin is meant to be chomped on.


We had quite a bit of time to pick at our cold chile beef and peanuts with preserved vegetable. We started wondering if they’d forgotten about our pork knuckle. We also wondered if we were going to get the fish dish I pointed to that elicited a grunty, “eh” from our waitress. Was “eh” a no or a guttural comment we couldn’t decipher? The fish never appeared, which was for the best since the knuckle was all we could handle. Maybe “eh” meant you are being piggish and I will only allow one entrée.


Lotus root was crunchy, mild and lightly sweet. I’m sure it would’ve been a fitting counterpart to a hotter dish.


If we had one more day in Shanghai I definitely would’ve tried nearby Di Shui Dong, another Hunan restaurant that was supposed to be slightly more down market. The room was only this sparse because we showed up at the tail end of lunch and many restaurants close during the afternoon.

Guyi * 87 Fumin Lu, Shanghai, China

Hot Pot King

1/2  Hot pot restaurants were way more plentiful than I’d anticipated—there’s practically one on every block. But I had to make sure there were English menu translations because I don’t like leaving anything to chance…or pointing. In many cases, picture menus ended up being my friend.

Strangely, Hot Pot King was actually more accessible and less confusing than Happy Family in Flushing, the only other place I’ve had huǒ guō. That’s the funny thing about New York; pockets of the city are less penetrable than foreign countries.


There are a zillion styles of hot pot, but it seems like Mongolian and Sichuan are the two distinct types in China. I intended to try the lamb-centric Muslim version in Beijing but it didn’t happen. Here, we ordered the yin yang broth, hot and spicy on one side, mellow and pork-based on the other. At Happy Family, I think the white side is made with soy milk and is slightly sweet. And the red side is fierce, way more intense and oily than this Shanghai rendition.


There are pages and pages of choices for things to dip and cook, it’s tough to decide. We were encouraged to order six items, which was possibly an upsell, but the number was right on. I tried to get a wide variety and picked fish balls, mustard greens, lotus root, flank steak, lamb and tofu puffs.


The part I find most confusing is choosing sauces. On the side of the room, there were containers of a least twenty different pastes, oils and condiments and at least twenty more chopped and granular things like garlic, sugar, scallions and sesame seeds. I saw that other diners made mixes in little bowls, and that most went with about 80% sesame paste. I copied that, and doctored mine up with multiple similar looking chile oils and purees, then sprinkled green onions on top. James made one with peanut butter, garlic and Sichuan peppercorns. You could get very creative, ff you were so inclined, After dipping all meal long, the concoctions all turn muddy anyway.

It wasn’t until we got up to leave that we noticed everyone was eating from bowls and ours were sitting untouched on a cart next to our table. We’d been using small plates that got all gross and soupy. The bowl/plate dilemma plagued us throughout China. I think chopsticks and small rice bowl is the preferred eating style, but it wasn’t universal.


Hot potting tends to be raucous and restaurants frequently stay open until wee hours. We went for lunch but if I’m correct they don’t close until 4am. I got the feeling that Hot Pot King was sleeker and more expat-friendly than some. But then, Shanghai seemed gentler all-around compared to Beijing.

Hot Pot King * 2F, 1416 Huaihai Zhong Lu, Shanghai, China

Made in China

Originally, I had no plans to eat at Made in China. (The name seems even more ironic now that Americans are hell bent on avoiding everything Chinese made. It seems like every day work I find a new toy recall survey to glean data from) But as I mentioned while discussing Da Dong and Quanjude, we showed up randomly on a Sunday afternoon out of Peking duck desperation. It wasn’t like we had to go out of our way. Made in China happened to be in the Hyatt (“five star all the way”) which also happened to be attached to Oriental Plaza, the mall a few blocks from our hotel that we took a shining to. Our impromptu lunch ended up being our most expensive meal in Beijing, though the tab did get a bump due to a few gin and tonic-esque cocktails, made with Maotai.


We didn’t have reservations so we were delegated to counter seating facing the dumpling-making station. It didn’t feel like a punishment. It turned out the duck wasn’t available so we defeatedly ordered beggar’s chicken, which we almost didn’t get either. I didn’t understand the hubbub or the “it’ll take 40 minutes” business, but as I discovered that was because I didn’t understand beggar’s chicken.


I had no idea it was so elaborate. Other people were eating simple handmade noodles and dumplings and here we were with complicated orders. Beggar’s chicken is stuffed with various things (in this case salted plums, ginkgo nuts…and I can’t remember what…maybe, lily buds?), wrapped in lotus leaves and baked in a shell. The sweet, salty and funky preserved quality of the mysterious purplish stuffing was unique.


For some reason I thought it was salt-baked but all the recipes I see say that it’s encrusted in mud or clay. Maybe traditionally. It’s a big production and James was asked to ceremonially crack open the casing with a mallet. Men get to have all the fun.


If I knew we were getting a whole chicken, I would’ve been more restrained in further ordering. I also chose a claypot of beef, pumpkin and chestnuts from an autumn menu. The stew also contained noodles that I couldn’t figure out because they were so light and springy like nothing I’ve had before. I suspect that they didn't contain wheat.


The spinach looks like it’s dressed in a plain sesame sauce but it’s spiked with a spicy mustard.


I thought pork knuckle in chile oil would be just that, but it was presented fancily as a sliced terrine.

The food at Made in China wasn’t like anything else I ate on vacation. It’s not easy to balance hearty with refined. The flavor combinations and use of ingredients were complex and not what I expected. I do still wonder what they would do with Peking duck.

Made in China * 1 E. Chang An Ave., Beijing, China

Da Dong & Quanjude

Duck versus duck. Even though Peking duck is a Beijing specialty, one meal in town would seem like plenty. I thought so, and did a lot of research narrowing down our choices to four: Quanjude, Li Qun, Made in China and Da Dong. I ultimately decided on the latter. Quanjude is the biggie with lots of name recognition but too touristy. Li Qun? I don’t recall why I nixed it. Made in China felt like where you’d take a foreigner to impress them with stylish (and expensive) versions of local dishes. Da Dong seemed just right.


This was one of the few occasions where having our hotel call for reservations paid off, though we had no control over the dining time. We asked for 8pm on Friday and were told we’d be eating at 6:30 pm, which we quickly learned was more typical (this was our first restaurant meal in China). We also learned that cash is de rigueur, even when buying things like plane tickets. We showed up 15 minutes late, having no concept of heavy Beijing traffic and how taxis avoid white people like the plague (I don’t even want to contemplate how black tourists must fare). Hungry crowds filled the windowed front waiting area while we were immediately seated. I’m surprised they didn’t give away our reservation.


Despite being a bargain at a shocking $12 (I was initially surprised at how inexpensive Beijing was. This was a seriously good value vacation–I almost spent more in Miami over Labor Day weekend than we did in nearly two weeks in China), we couldn’t justify ordering a whole duck just for the two of us. But as it turned out, a half order, while pristinely sliced and presented, was meager for our gluttonous tastes.


Da Dong’s claim to fame is a leaner bird, less fatty and healthy. I don’t know about the healthy part, but it was a classy duck. There truly was very little fat; the skin was shatteringly crisp with little sections placed atop the dainty meat pile to be dipped in granulated sugar. I loved the array of condiments: said sugar, garlic, cucumber, spring onions, radish and what I think was bean paste. Options and multiple sauces always sway me. I knew right then, that Dadong was the right choice.

Cold bamboo shoots with scant chile slices. These weren’t terribly spicy.


Lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice appeared on a lot of menus. I never tried another rendition for comparison, but this sticky dish was very sweet and candied, almost more of a dessert than what we were brought for that course.


Ack, our first meal introduced us to the Chinese melon plate for dessert. I’ll admit this was an impressive version with dry ice and a few crab apples (which must be a local favorite—you see them sold candied on sticks, kabob-style, all over). But they didn’t stop with the fruit. Oh no, sesame pudding, a.k.a. black sludge also appeared after our food was cleared. I don’t have a problem with these types of desserts but after a heavy meal the thick, bittersweet sludge didn’t seem very refreshing. I think the only acceptable American treats that are this less-than-appetizing color are Oreos.


After Da Dong, we were left wanting more. If taxis weren’t so troublesome, we seriously would’ve headed to another roast duck restaurant. Another excursion was going to have to be factored into our schedule. We attempted lunch at Made in China two days later but it turned out to be an item that had to be ordered in advance. Damn. So, we ended up going regionally inaccurate and tried the Quanjude branch in Shanghai.

It was sort of asking for trouble, eating at a so-so chain in a city not renowned for Peking duck, but we were desperate. Compared to Da Dong, the clientele was tourist-heavy and the service more lackadaisical. Even the Chinese didn’t appear to be locals. (I was fascinated by a nearby table with a middle-aged French couple and two totally artsy hipster Asian girls who spoke both Mandarin and French. I’m not sure that they were Chinese, not that a Chinese girl couldn’t speak French.)


Half a duck wasn’t even an option here, so we got more than our fair share. In fact, we ended up making little wraps with the extras and hid them in our bags like old ladies getting the better of a buffet. Communicating was tough, so asking for our leftovers to go wasn’t even worth the bother. Tonal languages will kill you. We asked one waiter for the check, trying to say “mǎi dān” as correctly as we could, and got a confused shrug. Another waiter later came by and said, “mǎi dān?” which I swear sounded just like what we’d tried to articulate.


Quanjude was closer to the Peking duck you’ll find in NYC, and I think it made James happier. The slices were kind of sloppy, the pancakes had adhered to each other and accompaniments only included plum sauce and scallion. Bare bones, yet wonderfully oily and irresistible. The meat was almost minerally. I did notice that the ducks at both restaurants had a meatier, richer flavor than the ones you get here.


I had to order chile tripe even though I knew we wouldn’t get through much of it. I’m starting to think that I have a tripe fetish—I’ve eaten four times in less than a month.


I’m still not clear why this “fish fragrant” eggplant dish caused a ruckus. Our waiter seemed very concerned that I chose it and had to get an English speaking staff member to come over and make sure we understood that it contained pork. Er, do I look Muslim? Or like a pork-hater?  Clearly, we weren’t vegetarian since duck and tripe were also on order. I was aware that fish fragrant/yu xiang is a garlicky Sichuan sauce that doesn’t actually have any fish in it because I’m a dork about the cuisine. Anyway, it turned out to be very good, kind of like what gloppy eggplant in garlic sauce from corner delivery joints wants to be.

Da Dong * Tuanjie Hu Beikou 3, Beijing, China

Quanjude * 4/F, 786 Huaihai Zhong Lu, Shanghai, China

AJ Maxwell’s

1/2 I’d never heard of AJ Maxwell’s, but then there are countless steakhouses with men’s names so it’s not that surprising. Last year at this time I was working a block away from AJ Maxwell’s and it still didn’t ring a bell, though it’s not the sort of place I would’ve been dining on a part-time news library salary anyway. Wendy’s and Au Bon Pain were about as good as it got.

Oysters on the half shell were really too large for our two-seater. They had to take our bread basket away (with the promise of its return) to make room for the presentation. And of course, they forgot to bring the bread back. Carbs are important to me.

There’s something highly impressive about the dinosaur-like bone poking from the rib eye.

I tried lamb chops just to be different, though I would’ve preferred beef. Despite the pretty greenness, jellied mint sauce rarely does much for meat.

Brussels sprouts with bacon were extremely good. Because we’re scrounges we wanted to take leftovers home. Unfortunately, they tossed everything except the meat. I suppose that implies that the typical clientele would never take home uneaten hash browns and brussels sprouts. Though just a few weeks earlier I ate at Ben & Jack's on my own dime and no one had a problem with doling out doggie bags.

Read my straight-shooting review.

AJ Maxwell’s * 57 W. 48th St., New York, NY

Break Out the Hibachis


I rarely go in for new venue scoping, mostly  because I’m not very observant. But I couldn’t help notice this new Koto awning a couple weeks ago. For all I know it’s been up for months. That’s probably the case because charmingly web 1.0 Small Town Brooklyn even lists it.

I can’t say that I’m ecstatic about sushi and steak, though at least a brownstone Benihana means one less mediocre Italian or Thai restaurant.