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Turning Macanese

I left for jfk at 6am Thursday, Thanksgiving morning and after journey by car, plane, train, taxi, ferry and bus, I ended up in Macau 6am Friday (7pm local time) at what might be the world’s most over-the-top Sofitel, shiny and garish, only three months old. Macau is completely out-Vegasing Vegas. Before passing out from exhaustion, we did take a quick peek at the on-site casino. With the exception of the Eastern European entertainment, i.e. girls in skimpy sequin costumes dancing to Cher, we were the only non-Asians in the house. It’s a weird scene.

I’m losing hope that we will get to Thailand tomorrow on our re-booked flight, or ever. Contingency plan looks like we’ll eat the cost and buy new tickets to Singapore Monday.

The only upside so far is that today I can get suckling pig at Fernando’s, which proved impossible on my last visit to Macau, only a day trip. Oh, and that I captured a lovely vomit scene during The Constant Gardener on the plane (yes, I chose that movie from the 100+ films on offer. I can’t watch comedies on planes—I prefer involved dramatic things I normally would never watch because it makes the time go by faster). Things are looking up.

Black Friday, Indeed

Tracking travel data is part of my job, and I’ll admit that I’ve been selfishly happy over all the statistics about Americans staying home or close to home during the holidays. Fewer hordes are always a good thing. I’m not scared of our nation’s floundering financial state, I just want to get the hell out of the country for a few weeks. Especially now that vague terror threats are aimed at NYC’s subways.

But as it stands, it looks like half of my vacation is a bust, and it has nothing to do with Thanksgiving traffic or our tanking economy. I’m honestly not sure what will happen tomorrow morning when I depart JFK for Hong Kong, Bangkok being my ultimate destination. If the airports in Bangkok are still closed, Friday night, 16 hours later am I just stuck in Hong Kong? I don’t even want to begin thinking of how I’m going to get money back on the three hotels in Thailand I’ve already paid for (that all stipulate that cancellations less than two days before reservation are eligible for zero refund. And no, I don’t have travel insurance, as I’ve been asked multiple times today—I never gave any thought to such a thing).

I don’t want to spend a whole two weeks in Hong Kong, it’s likeable, but not that likeable. I’ve scoured for cheap (or even not so cheap) flights to either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. If need be we can scramble and put together a new itinerary, but seriously, everything in the immediate future is booked and the available tickets are close to $900, ridiculous for such a short flight.

I was really counting on cheap prescription drugs and a haircut at Toni & Guy, but more importantly, my detailed eating list may not be realized and that breaks my heart. As much as I like Chinese food, I like Thai more. And I learned my lesson trying to eat Thai food in spice-averse Hong Kong last time I was there. You’re better off in NYC.

Wherever I may be the next two weeks, I won’t likely post much if anything. I never do on vacation. But I have the feeling I may Twitter a bit. As much as I like to loathe the service, it’s growing on me rapidly. There, I said it, Twitter is fun.

Cocktails for the Potentially Non-Jet-Setting

Maidens cover
I’ve been sifting through the padded envelopes of old cookbooks my mom has been sending me and reacquainting myself with missives I forgot I even owned.

I decided a stiff drink was order now that I’m sick to my stomach over Suvarnabhumi International Airport being shut down by protesters 36 hours before my heavily planned trip (with three hotels already paid for) to Thailand. Seriously, if this gets fucked up there will be hell to pay by someone, something…I’m not sure who will face the brunt of my ire yet.

Luckily, 1965’s lovely Easy to Make Maidens & Cocktails took my mind off of civil unrest in faraway places. I kind of love the unflattering illustrations that punctuate this charmingly sexist bar guide. Each liquor is assigned a type of maiden with a description of her personality. I’ve always thought of myself as a whiskey girl, despite rarely ordering it anymore.

Whiskey maidens
 I know, I know, American whiskeys are super trendy now. But if you go into a non-dive that’s not a prohibition-era-speakeasy, it seems wrong to order something as rough as whiskey on the rocks. Whiskey sours, my old drink of choice, seem too musty (though I thinking of reclaiming it again). And no one is going to know how to make most cockamamie drinks from days of yore such as the Hot Deck (whiskey, sweet vermouth, Jamaica ginger [I’m assuming that’s ginger beer]) or a Beau Brummel (bourbon, orange juice, prunelle, sugar syrup). What’s a civilized way to drink whiskey? It’s still 2008 so that would probably dictate something involving elderflower liqueur or homemade bitters.

Not a question for today. Instead, I flipped through this book for something unique yet doable with ingredients already on hand was no easy task. I kept getting thwarted by lacking crucial items like Amer Picon, Benedictine or Chartreuse.


I finally arrived at the Café Kirsch. ¾ ounce Cognac, ¾ ounce, Kirschwasser, ¾ ounce strong coffee. Shake with cracked ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass. I did as told and came up with a strangely pale tiny drink. I would up the three-quarters to full ounces. Well, assuming I would make this again, which I’m not sure I will.

The scent was coffee, yet the overall taste was strong and bitter, kind of firewatery with a hint of cherry poking through. This is definitely not for sweet beverage lovers. I’m not sure that it’s for anyone. There was a missing component needed to smooth things over.

Cafe kirsch

Maybe I will tackle pousse cafes next. Now, that’s beyond retro. I’ve always been enamored by the layered rainbow effect, but that seem tricky to get right. I was impressed by Ruth Reichl’s skills when she demonstrated the technique on a episode of Diary of a Foodie earlier this year.

Vesta Trattoria

We have a zillion Italian-American, Italian-Italian, wine bars, pizzerias and small plates joints in Carroll Gardens and environs so maybe I’m blasé. I wouldn’t think twice about Vesta Trattoria if it were on Smith Street.

But Astoria is a different matter. That part of Queens has never been my stomping grounds, so I’m not a good judge of the neighborhood. But from what I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be much going on way west on 20th Street. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the brand new restaurant was filled beyond capacity on Saturday.

At least they understand the power of softening an hour wait with a free drink. I don’t know how many places, particularly small places catering to locals, seem hospitality deficient. You think that would be especially vital in the first few weeks when opinions are being formed.

The menu isn’t wide-ranging. There are a handful of starters, three pizzas, four pastas and on my visit, three entrees. I wasn’t taken by the standard sounding chicken, salmon or steak. Maybe they were prepared wonderfully, warm lentils and prune reduction doesn’t sound half bad, but they didn’t entice me with their simplicity.

Vesta cracked wheat salad

Instead, I shared a lemony cracked wheat salad. I don’t always want something delicate and leafy when it’s freezing out so this fit the still light but more substantial bill. This is the type of thing that would be horribly dull if I made it myself, probably because I always underdress salads.

Vesta margherita pizza

Pizzas are very crackery, which I like, though I know not all do. The margherita was a little tomato and basil sweet and not terribly cheesey.

Vesta gnocchi

Pastas come in cute individual casseroles, which struck me as something Gordon Ramsey would suggest to perk up business on Kitchen Nightmares. Not that any nightmares occurred here (well, sort of, if you consider being smooshed next to a furiously groping couple who insist on sitting side-by-side on a shared banquette, horrifying. I particularly liked it when James inadvertently got brushed by the grabbing hands an inch from his body).

Gnocchi with oyster mushrooms in a cream sauce more than compensated for the oddly light starters. This was hearty, though not relentlessly dense. The parmesan crumbs and meaty fungi kept the dish interesting.

Vesta lasagna

“Sunday dinner style” lasagna, whatever that means. I did not sample this, and worried for a second, considering it was Saturday’s dinner.

I’m not clear what atmosphere they’re trying to cultivate, maybe it’s evolving. The Scorpions and Poison that were initially playing seemed a little off but I kind of got it and didn’t think it was completely ironic as the crowd leaned middle of the road. As the night wore on Vampire Weekend came on, as if one of the waiters had finally got a chance to play his mix.

Vesta painting
This is the strange little artwork that I looked at during most of my meal. For no particular reason, it made me think of the “The Nightman Cometh” musical from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s season finale. I suppose that’s a good thing, not sure if it’s appetite stimulating, though.

If you feel compelled to pay a visit and intend to drive, beware the folly of Google maps. Type in 20-02 30th Ave. and it gives you 80-02. Drive there and you’ll end up in a residential neighborhood near La Guardia trying to figure out where you went wrong.

Vesta Trattoria * 21-02 30th Ave., Astoria, NY

So Dishy

Green bean salad

I just accidentally discovered a perfect Thanksgiving side dish. Unfortunately, it will have to wait until next year to be put into play.

I was trying to use up leftovers in the house so things won’t rot while I’m out of town. Cooked turkey breast and green beans led me adapting a chopped wing bean salad, a favorite that I make occasionally.

After adding more coconut milk than called for (there’s no way the whole can will get used up by Thursday so I increased the ¼ cup to one) and a topping of fried sliced shallots and garlic, I was struck by the resemblance to green bean casserole. In fact, I thought the same thing last time I made this dish. I’m forgetful but consistent.

All you would have to do is remove the poultry and swap coconut milk for cream of mushroom soup. You could even use the classic French’s fried onions. Once diners got over the shock of a cold dish rather than a warm bubbly one (who needs hotdish, anyway? I'm not from the Midwest) there would probably be a few holiday converts. At least I’d hope so. Traditionalists might still balk at fish sauce and chiles on the Thanksgiving table.

Don’t Be Chicken

Chick fil a sandwich

Some restaurants tend to be alluring simply because they’re elusive, whether it’s Chick-fil-A to New Yorkers or say, El Bulli, to most of the world. Does the myth live up to reality?

That’s hard to say in the case of the chicken sandwich because I’m no connoisseur. I just don’t choose chicken sandwiches when a hamburger is so much more appealing, but it’s hard to argue with the simplicity of Chick-fil-A’s classic that’s so iconic it was copied by McDonald’s this year.

Toasted buttered bun, breaded, fried (or “pressure-cooked in peanut oil,” they say) chicken breast with no more than two pickles for distraction. Austere in a good way. I think my aversion to fast food chicken and fish sandwiches is that I assume a swath of mayo will be present. I only enjoy mayonnaise when I can’t see it because I semi-secretly have the palate of a seven-year-old. If a white blob squishes out of the side of sandwich when handling it, the napkin immediately comes out and I have to wipe down the interior of overdressed bun or bread as I’ve done for over three decades. It’s not pretty. Not having to endure that trauma with Chick-fil-A is much appreciated; you can gussy up your patty with the individually packaged condiments of your choosing. I was fine with Tabasco only.

Chick fil a bag

(After graduating college in the early ’90s and finding myself unemployable, I housekept my printmaking teacher’s giant ‘70s suburban house for $6/hour. She was a highly entertaining but insane alcoholic who couldn’t get out of bed so I’d also have to take her unruly kid to school [and cart him off to the McDonald’s playground and distract him while she sold pot out of her house] and occasionally make her food. She insisted on tuna sandwiches and freaked when she saw how little mayonnaise I mixed in with the canned fish. “No, like this” she laughed, gleefully thwaping in a good two cups of the condiment, creating a two-to-one ratio of thick white soup to meaty flakes. I almost hurled, and didn’t last long as her helper. I’ve never been good at helping.)

Woodbridge center

I guess Chick-fil-As aren’t as scarce as I had thought. I encountered one a few weeks ago at Menlo Park Mall, and then again this weekend at the Woodbridge Center, a lovely architectural throwback. I’d peg those JCPenny concrete angles as 1981.

Also appropriate for the era was an Orange Julius inside. I would’ve eaten a peanut buster parfait at the attached Dairy Queen for old time’s sake if I didn’t have a filling German dinner already in the works. I mean, I’d already eaten a late lunch chicken sandwich, which was not on my itinerary.

If you need any further proof of the lowbrowness of Woodbridge Center, they also had a 99-cent store and a Sears (no Spencer’s, sadly) which was the only reason why I had chosen this mall in the first place. Yes, I went to Sears on purpose. I needed to exchange a too-big Land’s End bathing suit top (no nonsense swimwear for me, I’d rather be frumpy than frighten fellow beachgoers) and apparently, they have mini shops inside of select Sears locations.

At least the trip enabled a Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich encounter. I believe there will be more in the future.


1/2 Googling killmeyer's vs nurnberger bierhaus
recently brought someone to this site, and strangely, I had the exact
same question last week. This is German food weather, but where to go?Manhattan just doesn’t work, though I’ll admit that I haven’t given it a chance. I probably would appreciate the kitsch factor at Rolf’s, especially this time of year. Queens is rife with options, and part of me is curious about Manor Oktoberfest since it’s in that bizarro Atlas Park, and they serve a Cuban panini. Schnitzel Haus is Brooklyn’s only contender (and might just have the best food of any I’ve tried so far--two words: schweinshaxe “hofbrauhaus" a.k.a. pork knuckle ). But really, the best ambiance is in Staten Island, yes, Staten Island. Killmeyer’s is barely even in the city. After winding for miles on woodsy dimly lit Arthur Kills Road, you could practically be in the Black Forest. If you really pushed your imagination, this isolated pocket could even be the setting for my favorite Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, "The Bird, the Mouse and the Sausage."
Due to its inconvenient location (though there are bus stops outside) the crowd tends to be very local, and on a Saturday night the bar was more crowded than the dining room. I sipped a Bitburger at a lone unoccupied table while waiting for friends to arrive (the same ones that I’d randomly ran into at Wegmans just a few hours earlier).I wonder if forcing the staff to wear festive costumes is key to the experience? Maybe that’s why I shy away from Manhattan…too much dignity. But what is German food without a Snow White-style building, moose heads and dirndl-clad lasses? (I’m seriously looking forward to Hua Hin where I’ll be in two weeks because the coastal town is thick with German expatriates who run businesses staffed by Thais in lederhosen and the like. So wrong for the tropics.)Potato pancakes with the requisite sour cream and applesauce were shared by all. They were a little oily but not offputtingly so. 
I was a little disheartened that there wasn’t any pork knuckle on the menu (I checked Nurnberger Bierhaus’ and Zum Stammtischs’ too and same deal. Sure, Schnitzel Haus seems oddly located in Bay Ridge, but they have the massive, crispy, fatty pork knuckle!). In order to try and satisfy my pork tooth, I opted for the farmer’s feast, which includes pork loin, smoked pork chop and pork sausage with sauerkraut, red cabbage and potato dumplings. It’s a lot of food. I could’ve survived on sauerkraut and kassler rippchen, but was happy for variety (and lunch the next day). The overall effect was sweet, tart and salty. Perfect with dark wheat beer whose name I’ve forgotten but in a style called dunkelweizen.
Sausage trio for a recently lapsed herbivore. On my last visit to Killmeyer’s I was accompanied by two vegetarians and it was tough going variety-wise. They do have a vegetarian plate, if need be.
Sauerbraten. This looked wonderfully dark and rich. I always intend to branch out into something non-porcine (though chicken or fish is pushing it) but after once ordering a lackluster sauerbraten at Schnitzel Haus instead of my favorite dish, yes, that damn pork knuckle, I was deeply disappointed. No German beef ever again.
There was no need for dessert and yet James was swayed by ridiculously fluffy overflowering sundaes being brought to tables throughout our dinner. No, there’s nothing particularly Bavarian about ice cream covered in walnuts and Bailey’s Irish Cream. But seriously, look at that thing. 
Is black forest cake authentic or one of those regionally whack things like English muffins or Singapore noodles?I can’t help but notice the “Book your holiday party now!!” plea on their website. I wish. After last year’s foodie-planned office party fiasco at Bacaro, someone else took over holiday celebration duties and we’re now going to someplace I’ve never heard of called Kemia Bar where I doubt squid ink, head-on sardines or chicken livers will make an appearance. (11/15/08)

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Apple (Burnt to a) Crisp

Burnt apple cobbler

I’m starting to think that many Chinese are onto something with their non-use of ovens. I’m about sick of mine because nothing but sadness comes out of it. Last week I bungled my attempt at a simple roast chicken (the skin wouldn’t crisp and the juices stayed bloody despite doubling the cooking time).

Sunday I tried making what I thought would be a simple apple crisp to get rid of a glut of on-the-verge-of-rotting apples given to James by his mom. I really hate unsolicited fruit (there were also oranges that already molded) and just don't enjoy it enough to eat a serving a day. Nature's candy, my ass.

This mishap was partially my own fault because after 45 minutes in the oven, the topping was still white and floury, no buttery crispness in sight. It was only after I took a dry test bite that I realized the mistake was not so much the temperature but that I’d forgotten to add a cup of brown sugar. Duh. In a last ditch effort to save the dessert, I rubbed the sugar over the top anyway and put it back in hoping for caramelization.

I think this would’ve succeed somewhat, and here is where blame is hard to pin down. James decided to take the pan out put it in the broiler. Despite not agreeing with this move, I then turned the knob to broil from 375. Within a minute, the treat had burst into foot-high flames rendering the entire thing charcoal black (once we were able to put the fire out). A total bust, which steamed me over the amount of time it took to peel and slice a million apples, not to mention the expense of wasted Plugra, pecans and hazelnuts.

Above is the salvaged version, after the blistered black top had been scraped off. It still tasted like shit and was dotted with persistent white floury patches. Just looking at the disaster makes me feel physically violent.

I say it was James’ fault for putting the dish in the broiler. He says it was mine for turning up the temperature. Really, I think I’m being punished for wanting to eat dessert. I try not only to minimize my sugar intake, but to keep it out of the house or else I'll pick at it all week (I'm still bummed over the ice cream maker downstairs that's only been used once). I had already made a minor health concession by making a pure apple crisp when I really wanted to make a version with a caramel layer. I'm definitely being punished.

Pining Away for Nuts

Wegmans, my newfound grocery diversion, doesn’t quite bring tears to my eyes, but it is growing on me.

Despite just about everyone I know, professional and personally, living in Brooklyn, I never ever run into people I know while conducting routine business. Yet while spending an early Saturday evening at a supermarket 27 miles from home, I bump into friends next to the brussels sprouts bin. Ok, it wasn’t really that crazy since Sherri’s boyfriend lives right near the Wegmans in question, but it was still absurd.

I’ve only been twice so I’m still figuring out the lay of the land. The store is enormous and laid out nonsensically, if you ask me. However, I was proven wrong about the two unfindable items on my maiden visit. This time I stumbled upon the polenta, weirdly placed with organic produce (not that I’ll ever need it again since I rarely cook polenta). And Evan had a shot of corn tortillas on his phone, which I did double check on, though I know for a fact that they were missing from the refrigerated case last time.

Wegmans finds

But just to ensure at least one bugaboo, this time pine nuts were nowhere to be seen. Not even in the bulk section, where to their credit, I was able to buy 48-cents worth of currants. Thwarted by pignolis.

Basquing in the Glory

Maybe because I have tenuous ties to both Nevada (my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother both lived in the Silver State) and Basques (my father’s mother’s mother was Basque, though not in Nevada, Texas, more like. Would that make me 1/8 Basque? That might as well be zero, as I don't think anything less than a quarter counts for squat when claiming ethnicity), I actually read an article, "Meat and Greet,"  in today’s T Magazine.

Normally, my attention span for the section is next to nonexistent. I can’t get enthused over $13,000 shell-encrusted busts (statues not décolletage) and $4,300 capes. But dwindling cultures in far-flung parts of the country are interesting. It kind of reminds me of the incongruous Luso-American Cultural Center, a block from my apartment. There aren't any Portuguese in Carroll Gardens that I'm aware of, the building stands.

This isn’t Basque like the brand new Txikito–close in spirit to modern Spain–this is hefty mutt fare that has steeped in America's West for over a century. I’ve never tasted this style of cuisine, though I imagine the paella and lamb steaks are the equivalent of Italian-American veal parm and spaghetti and meatballs. I’d like to try it, though I’m not sure when I’ll have the opportunity. Idaho and Nevada, two Basque hotbeds, aren’t exactly on my radar.

Photo from Mike's Gallery