Skip to content

Archive for

Please Sir, Can I Have Some Más?

I’ve never been to a Sam’s Club, which I think is like a Wal-Mart owned Costco, right? But I still love the idea of Mas Club, a warehouse store devoted to products shipped from Mexico.

I don’t know how this will translate here since we’re more of a plantain than a tortilla city. They’ll probably only put them in Texas, Arizona and California. Ok, nevermind, we don’t have Sam’s Clubs in NYC anyway.

In New Jersey and the outer boroughs I’m accustomed to big Asian supermarkets but we don’t really Latino equivalents, at least that I’m aware of. That’s why I was so wowed by Mariana’s in Vegas a few years ago. That market is probably no big deal to West Coasters where freshly baked conchas and myriad types of tripe are easy to find.

I would like to pretend that I grew up eating wonderfully nuanced Mexican food, but the truth is that my family’s favorite venue was Taco Time. The regional chain was/is better than Taco Bell because they deep-fry their skinny burritos, which are like a cross between a chimichanga and a flauta and they serve Mexi-fries, glorified tater tots. I very rarely get homesick for the Northwest but I have fond Taco Time memories.

Irving Mill

I like to pretend that I’m not susceptible to suggestion but after reading a blurb about Irving Mill’s charcroute platter on Food & Wine’s blog earlier this month, I knew I’d have to seek it out.

I hadn’t paid much attention to this restaurant initially because I only have room in my mind for so many urban farmhouses. But after Ryan Skeen moved there from Resto, bringing my favorite salad of 2008 (so far) with him, I figured this meaty Alsatian hodgepodge would not suck.

And it didn’t. The only difficulty was in trying to determine how much food to order. Irving Mill has one of those menus scattered with bites, small plates, full on entrees and randomly placed boxes advertising things like a burger and this charcroute plate. How much does one get for $22 versus the $38 version?

I decided the smaller size could be an appetizer for two, and this was true, everything came in pairs. Perfect. If there had been three of us, it would’ve been all wrong and insufficient. Shared bites just aren’t enough sometimes.

Irving mill choucroute

Head cheese or terrine tete de cochon if you want it to sound nicer, ribs, boudin noir in slices, boudin blanc whole and breaded, fried pig’s feet are on the plate clockwise from the top. Though, I wouldn’t have predicted so, the crispy-tender ribs were the star. None of these items were boiled together as tradition dictates, so everything from the delicate weisswurst to the schnitzel-like feet kept their individual textures.

Irving mill potatoes Accompaniments included grilled bread, violet mustard, grainy mustard and potato wedges with horseradish-spiked crème fraiche. I closed my eyes, pretended I had an astute palate and tried to detect floweriness in the burgundy-hued mustard. I liked the color, but nothing violet jumped out flavor-wise.

A few minutes after we took in the whole affair, a separate small bowl of pork bellies were hurried to our table. I think they initially forgot them and in the charcuterie frenzy, I hadn’t even noticed. Now that I look at the menu, the missing component is described as glazed pork shoulder but we definitely were given two, fat-striped squares of belly.

This is perfect restaurant food because cooking miniature versions of six meaty items is impractical from both financial and time standpoints. And I was able justify the gluttony because each porky treat is small and manageable.

So, my palate was useless for flavored mustard, but boy did the sauerkraut get into my system. James didn’t think it was particularly strong, but I wondered if the fermentation might’ve gone wild. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on what tasted odd, not bad, but pungent. It was clearly the shredded cabbage, which was tart, salty, with undercurrents of mustiness. I initially thought urine, then changed my mind to festering genitals (not that I know that smell, first hand, of course). This wasn’t an unfamiliar odor, and I finally placed it: stinky tofu.

On the cheapy bus from Beijing to the Great Wall (hey, I was there this week last year) I started getting whiffs of what I thought was the stench of an unwashed human (once a similar smell assaulted me on the 5 to the Bronx Zoo and it was clearly attributable to a kid sitting next to me) or maybe a dead and decaying human. I was convinced it was human in some form, not animal. I finally realized that it was food, which made me feel a little better, and I totally got why they call it stinky tofu.

I just ate kim chee for lunch so I have no problem with fermented cabbage. I liked Irving Mill’s sauerkraut too. But I wonder if I was just having a supertaster moment and the dish wasn’t as strong as I perceived it to be because I don’t imagine the average diner goes for that sort of thing. Or maybe the average diner steers clear of charcroute, altogether.

Irving mill lobster salad

Yes, there was other food. I ordered a lobster salad hoping for lightness to balance the starter. I do appreciate salads that go easy on the lettuce; the romaine is really only there to support the salinity of the sweet shellfish and mouth-popping caviar (which type, I have no idea). I could’ve done with an extra chunk of lobster, though. And just to make sure that pig parts appear in every possible place, there are thin rectangles of bacon tossed on top that I initially thought were some kind of vegetable chip. I’m glad it wasn’t crispy grilled eggplant.

Irving mill macaroni and cheese

I never eat macaroni and cheese because it just tastes like cheese and noodles. I totally don’t get the appeal. And yes, this tasted like cheese and noodles, but drier and sharper than usual. Oh, and those cracklings kind of changed my mind a bit.

Irving mill lamb cassoulet

The lamb cassoulet was not light and was not my pick. I did eat a slice of gamey, lightly spiced sausage, though.

Irving mill brownie sundae

The sundae was completely unnecessary. I got sucked in by the idea of ice cream slathered in gooey sauce, but really the confection was ordinary. The caramel drizzles were nearly imperceptible and the blondie was kind of hard. The cinnamon walnuts were the standout.

I like getting dismayed over ‘80s music wherever it plays. I guess because it means that I’m old. In a Paramus Outback Steakhouse, hearing The Cure tickles me a little. It somehow makes sense paired with a 22-ounce mug of Foster’s, but I’m weirded out by the same music when sipping a $14 organic apple cider from Normandy because it’s a bizarre melding of highbrow with ancient pop culture.

But no matter the setting, I always love it when "Age of Consent," my favorite New Order song, comes on (a live Arcade Fire version had popped onto my iPod the same day I dined at Irving Mill so it was a daily double). No, it’s not the most obscure tune yet it never fails to put me into a good state of mind. I would gladly eat headcheese to synth-pop again.

Irving Mill * 116 E. 16th Street, New York, NY

Too Long To Twitter

El Bulli: "The demand that we have received at the first moment has again surpassed our limited possibilities for one season and we regret not to be able to full fill more reservation requests."

Well, duh, but it was worth a try.

I'm almost ready to be swayed toward this camp.

Thanks, But No Thanks

No-turkey_guarantee Yes, I suppose it’s one month to Thanksgiving. Time to make reservations if that’s your type of thing or start scouring the magazines. My holiday issues have been pouring in. And as much as I get a soothing sense of calm from planning Thanksgiving meals, I’m kind of relieved that I’ll be out of the country November 27.

Potatoes, yams, pumpkin pies, pecan pies, stuffing…it’s all starch and sugar (and turkey is flat out dull), things I try to avoid while also trying to not talk about it too much because frankly, who cares what you’re trying not to eat.

I’ll board a plane at early the 27th and won’t touch ground until it’s Friday night in Bangkok. Too soon for personal homesickness, but Americans (I rarely encounter Americans in S.E. Asia—mostly British, Australians and Germans) in the mood for “traditional American dishes such as roasted whole beef tenderloin sliced with jalapeños, smoked Texas BBQ pork ribs, Louisiana baked darn salmon and California BBQ Chicken with a glass of California wine,” will find that most of the big hotels put on Thanksgiving meals like this example from the Novotel.

Hong Kong, where I’ll be a week later, takes quite a different approach to the holiday. Would you fancy a HK$880 ($113 USD) menu serving Kumamoto oysters, warm horseradish and tomato broth, fresh crayfish and okra soup, prosciutto, roasted pumpkin and sage salad, slow-roasted turkey, foie gras and chestnut stuffing with shaved Brussels sprouts, cherry-yuzu soda and pecan and dark chocolate tart, vanilla bean ice cream and bourbon caramel? At least that’s what they were serving last year at Felix in the Peninsula Hotel.

What Makes a Grocery Store Gourmet?

Gourmet fresh groceries

The jury (well, me) is still out on Gourmet Fresh, the new grocery store in my bizarrely grocery store deficient neighborhood, that’s owned by the same proprietors of the world’s worst Key Food that shuttered a few years back. I want to dislike it but it seems neutral enough, at least upon a cursory inspection. Still not sure what gourmet means, though.

It certainly looks more appealing your ordinary Brooklyn supermarket, it’s tiny and somehow upscale—I think all it takes is using wood floors instead of linoleum and lots of freestanding metal racks as shelving.

I do my real grocery shopping on weekends at more substantial stores (Fairway or Western Beef if I’m staying in the boroughs or Costco, Trader Joe’s and a Shop Rite or Wegman’s if I’m in NJ) but I tested Gourmet Fresh on three staples I eat nearly every day: Wasa crackers, Fage yogurt and oatmeal.

They struck out in an odd way on the yogurt. They carried the brand in every variety: 5%, 0%, full fat, 2% with honey, 2% with jam…but no plain 2%? The 0%, which I broke down and bought, is just sad and now the rest of my week won’t be the same. $1.99 is pretty standard for NYC, I can’t complain about the price.

$3.39 seemed kind of high for the crackers. I’m blanking what I normally pay for them but I feel like it’s under $3.

They had plenty of oatmeal brands and flavors to choose from. I also think the $3.79 price tag was a touch pricey but typical for the area. I can’t really compare it to the boxes at Trader Joe’s since they’re different beasts.

I don’t know what groceries are supposed to cost anymore. Does $13.15 seem about right? I’m incredibly cheap, even by tightwad standards, so it’s hard to gauge.

I might do a comparison at neighboring…hmm…I had no idea the nearby store that was featured in the New York Times yesterday is called Good Food Supermarket. I know they have the yogurt for maybe a dime cheaper but their brands are more basic and I’m not convinced I’ll find the crackers and oatmeal. But I will see.

Never Say Never

I have to be careful about never because softening occasionally occurs. I resisted using the term blog for many years, until it became so pervasive that using personal website, online journal or just anything else sounded as antiquated as referring to an iPod as a Walkman (which I’ve been known to do unintentionally—at least I don’t call computers “the machine”). I held out on buying a cell phone until last August (I seriously use it like three times a week, kind of a waste) and at some point decided leggings weren’t the devil (but I still don’t believe they are a substitute for pants and these skintight shiny things must go away).

The only thing I can say with strong certainty is that I will never wear thongs (flip flops or flossy undergarments).

But I’ve caved on Twitter. I still think it’s asinine and do not understand why anyone wants to read non sequitur snippets from friends, family or strangers. I don’t really. Yet as each month seems to become more time-crunched, a sentence or two is sometimes all you can muster. I get that.

So, hidden halfway down my right-hand column is evidence of my potentially short-lived foray into microblogging. Tweet tweet. Please don’t hate me for succumbing.

Whole Hog

Roast pig

It seems that whole pig roasts are all the rage (I read about one today on Chez Pim, Esquire just deemed suckling pig as ingredient of the year and I hear that the Big Brooklyn Pig Roast held in my neighborhood last week sold out). And while not trend crazed, I won’t say no to an invite either.

This weekend a meaty fete was thrown by James’ caja china-owning coworker who was giving it a test run in his Bed-Stuy backyard. Home ownership has its benefits.

Pig out backyard

I had nothing to do with the pig prepping or any of the Latin-style accompaniments. All I know is that the party’s star came from Paisanos in Carroll Gardens and that asking the price would be gauche. Oh, and that it was brined in a garbage bag. I merely showed up with a six-pack and a hunger for pork. The yellow rice, tostones and soupy red beans weren’t too shabby either.

Butterflied pig

We arrived right after the butterflied animal had been removed from the coals, still pressed in its metal contraption.

Caja china

It finally decided to get fall-like and an unexpected chill had set in. I hadn’t even thought to wear a coat (it was almost 80 on Wed.) so I stayed close to the caja china instead of sitting down properly. The best part of hanging out near the dying coals, was being able to crisp up fatty slices of skin on the fly. That, however, is not skin on the rack but a steak.

Pig out more yard

You could take such a creation in many directions. When and if I ever have the space to roast a whole beast, I envision lechon and a Filipino spread.


  Vowing not to write off all West African food after my Ghanaian mishap at Meytex Cafe,  I was happy to attend a group dinner (Pete from Word of Mouth, Dave from Eating in Translation and a few message board regulars were also present) at Clinton Hill’s Mariam, not to be confused with South Brooklyn’s Israeli cuisine chainlet, Miriam.

The owners are from Guinea, and the menu reflects that country’s offerings as well as nearby Senegal’s. Frankly, I know little about either so sampling a wide variety was a must. Hopefully, I won’t misidentify too wildly. I’ll start with the high points.

Mariam fish

Poisson frit with achecke in mustard sauce was a hit and more complex than simple fried fish on a plate. I’m guessing the fish was tilapia because it’s common and it had that not unpleasant soil taste that you often get from the bottom-feeding species. The mild white flesh was encased in rightly crispy skin. Acheke is a fluffy fermented cassava-derived starch that only had the slightest tang, and it paired well with the sharp mustard-flavored onions.

Mariam oxtail

I really liked the stewed oxtails but how can oxtails be bad? The bones had a nice amount of meat attached as well as bits of gelatin.

Mariam potato leaves

Sauce feuille patate. Our first choice was cassava leaves, but they only had potato leaves. Not that I would be able to detect the difference. I didn’t even know potatoes had leaves—I do wonder if they meant sweet potato? This dish is described as containing meat, but I’m not certain what meat as I didn’t sample any brown hunks. Interestingly, a welcome fishy shrimp paste flavor colored this dish.

Mariam fowl

The guinea fowl was a bit dry and tough, not the most successful dish. We chose the same accompaniments that the fish came with. I did appreciate the half-cube of Maggi bullion even though I didn't understand its purpose. Were they attempting to display quality? A table across form us had an enormous jug of Maggi sauce sitting on it–this was clearly an MSG-friendly zone.

Mariam callaloo

We ordered callaloo but I swear this isn’t predominantly the leafy green, which is akin to chard. There was some serious mucilaginous action occurring that could only be attributed to okra.

Mariam couscous

They don’t only employ couscous look-alikes acheke-style, but the mini grains, themselves. The sauteed onions, hard-boiled egg half and green olive were a nice addition. There's something almost Moorish about this.


Ok, I wouldn't say that sweets were Mariam's strength. I wasn’t sure what to make of one described as being served with tomato sauce. That couldn’t have been a typo, right? We ordered one, which was essentially yogurt mixed with canned fruit cocktail. This was thaikry, couscous tossed with sour cream and vanilla extract. I wouldn’t say that it’s wildly cravable, but was slightly more satisfying and sweeter than I'd expected. I might occasionally eat it for breakfast instead of Trader Joe’s instant oatmeal or Greek yogurt if given the option but it’s not the most stellar dessert.

Unrelated to food, this restaurant happens to be a mere two blocks from that fancy condo complex that I'm mildly obsessed with. I strolled by and took at look since I had 20 minutes to kill before dinner. The building isn't shabby,  but it might be hard to justify a $1 million price tag with little more than car washes, storage units, 24-hour adult video store, check cashing joints, McDonald's, Golden Krust, and yes, a pretty nice Guinean restaurant, in the immediate vicinity. Well, I have always complained at the lack of 99-cent stores in Carroll Gardens…

Mariam * Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY

Bulking Up For the Winter

Cip cocktail Why don’t run-of-the-mill grocery stores in NYC sell bulk food? This was literally keeping me awake last night. I yelled the question repeatedly from my bedroom into the kitchen where James was doing dishes and garnered no response until my third attempt got a ridiculous “It’s not worth answering.” That’s absolutely not true.

A million years ago when I first moved to NYC I was stymied by the Associateds, Key Foods, C Towns and the like packaging everything up for you in Styrofoam and cling film or plastic containers. What if I only wanted a handful of white mushrooms or half a cup of pecans? It seemed so wasteful to force large amounts of perishables on a shopper.

My genius idea would be selling fresh herbs in bulk. Of course, there wouldn’t be much profit in this business model. I can never use 20 thyme sprigs or even a whole cilantro bundle before it starts to go bad.

I’m still not sure if it’s a space and convenience issue; it’s just easier for a store to present you with ready-to-go items, if it’s hygiene like too many hands touching the goods, that people would just take food and not pay or that New Yorkers have a more difficult time than the average consumer with self-service (I tend to believe the latter having seen way too many jams and general cluelessness at the few stores that offer self-checkout).

My big scam when I was a younger teen and candy was enough to make my day, was filling my baggie with bridge mix and writing down the code for chocolate-covered peanuts, which were way cheaper. I only got busted once, which was no big deal because you could just play dumb. People were more trusting. This was during the era when stores would sell kids cigarettes with notes from their parents (I had a neighbor in high school who legitimately did this, the reasoning being that they had had drug problems and were in recovery and their family was happy to see them smoking as long as it meant they weren’t abusing other substances).

I’d forgotten about the lack of bulk food even being problematic until this weekend when I paid a visit to Wegmans in Woodbridge, NJ, a much higher class of grocery store than the already classier-than-NYC garden state supermarkets I normally patronize. The store is mammoth with spacious rows of anything you could think of (except corn tortillas and polenta in a tube it turned out—what’s up with the maize aversion? Maybe someone read The Omnivore's Dilemma one too many times) including a nice row of bulk food dispensers. You don’t even know the joy I derived from meting out the tiniest scoop of pepitas. It’s very satisfying to pay $1 and some change for what you actually need instead of $5 for a container that will just go stale.

I would’ve explored Wegmans further (and possibly found those corn products eventually) but I was running late to meet friends at Cheeseburger in Paradise just minutes away on the other side of Route 1. If you ever want live covers of all your favorite ‘90s hits (think Counting Crows and Extreme) and a signature cocktail composed of pina colada, rum runner, margarita, daiquiri and blue curacao layers, all in the same glass, garnished with a gummy cheeseburger on a toothpick and fruit wearing sunglasses (they’re called “garnimals”) show up at this Jimmy Buffet chain at 9:30pm on a Saturday.

Oh, and why don’t they sell bulk food in NYC?

Dang Lai Palace

1/2 I accidentally took part in meatless Monday this week. Eating a vegan lunch and near-vegan dinner in the same day isn’t my usual M.O. It just turned out that I had the mid-day urge for Little Lad’s when I’d already planned to eat at Dang Lai Palace later.

I’ve only eaten at Zen Palate once (when I first moved to NYC, my sister, mom and grandma all converged here at the same time and my sister wanted to go to Zen Palate. My grandma made a stink about it being too expensive and how she’d just as well eat the Chinese food near my apartment on Fresh Pond Road. Well, somebody keeps those one-per-block takeout joints in business and the Union Square Zen Palate did go out of business, so maybe she was on to something) but that one visit was enough that I can see Dang Lai Palace is drawing heavily from their menu, right down to the names of dishes.

You kind of have to dig fake meat to appreciate this style of cuisine and there are plenty of people who would rather just shun flesh and not mess with blobs crafted from wheat gluten and bean curd. I happen to like the taste of mock morsels (though I’ll never understand the logic behind substituting Ritz crackers for real fruit in an apple pie). However, I’m not convinced that there’s anything particularly healthy about pseudo-meat from either a well-balanced diet or caloric perspective.

Dang lai palace sampler

This is the Dang Lai Platter, which is meant to be an entrée, but functions as a perfectly nice starter to share. It’s a lot of food for two, though. The meatloafy rectangles are vegetarian duck, which taste nothing like poultry. I have no idea what makes autumn rolls fall-like; they’re crisp-fried just like a spring roll but the skin is made from bean curd sheets that happen to be red for some reason. Mushroom and cashews is a take on cashew chicken. Sesame protein in sweet and sour sauce is a fairly obvious rendition of sweet and sour pork but the chunks are pliable and soft rather than battered and fried. 

Dang lai palace tofu salad

We had to get some greens in so a fresh kale and tofu salad fit that need.

Dang lai palace spring comes to world

Spring comes to the world. It’s strange because real ham wrapped around vegetables would never appeal to me in a Chinese context but this dish was very satisfying. Strands of enoki mushrooms and zucchini slivers are wrapped in vegetarian ham and fastened with a black mushroom knot. The soft and crunchy textures were nice and the ham was very hearty. The sauce is very light and comes with wedges of tomato and gingko nuts. I gave it a boost with chile oil because it was almost too delicate for me.

Dang lai palace beef with broccoli

Orange-flavored beef with broccoli wasn’t mine, but the one bite I had was appropriately sweet, lightly spiced and gloopy. I mean that as a compliment, it’s like takeout but with springier blobs of protein.

I’m not clear on the alcohol situation. When I showed up Sherri already had cracked open a bottle of Malbec she’d been OK’d to bring in, then towards the end of our meal our waiter mentioned that we could have a free glass of wine. Huh? I wouldn’t assume you could byob if they had a liquor license and then I wondered if they meant “wine” in the same way they served “meat.” No pomegranate mock wine for me, thanks. But no, it was real red wine of some sort. I don’t turn down free drinks, even house wine.

One thing I’ll say about this type of food is that it’s filling as heck. Granted, we ordered a lot to eat and I ended up taking some home, but by 1am I was still so full I could barely fall asleep. The next time I eat vegetarian Kosher (did I mention it’s Kosher too?) Chinese food I will be less gluttonous.

Dang Lai Palace * 180 Third Ave., New York, NY