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Monkey See, Monkey Do

Monkey bread
I love monkey bread. Or at least I think I do, as I haven’t eaten the doughy treat in decades. Only I had no idea that’s what it was called until a few weeks ago when I read a bit on Serious Eats pitting the canned biscuit version (the type I’m familiar with) against a baking mix.

Then, monkey bread popped up again courtesy of Esquire’s nostalgic look back at holidays of yore. 1984 brought us Nancy Reagan’s version, which uses a scratch recipe no Pillsbury conveniences.

Are ‘80s confections making a resurgence? Yes, I’ll reiterate my loathing for ‘80s music for the zillionth time but Reagan-era food? I could get into that. Bring on the taco salad served in fried tortilla bowls and Jello-O poke cakes.

TLC was recently playing some longwinded show, which I’ve since deduced is Home Made Simple where they redecorate a house and teach the inhabitants how to cook and it goes on for an hour. I was just using it as  background noise until I was drawn in while catching a glimpse of what I call Chinese chews (apparently, nothing like these more commonly agreed upon Chinese chews), another treat I haven’t encountered in over 20 years. Melted chocolate and butterscotch chips mixed with peanuts and those crispy chow mein noodles and formed into blobs chilled on a baking sheet.

It looks like some people call them haystacks, but that just isn’t right to me. Haystacks? Monkey Bread? How come I’m only hearing these monikers well into my 30s?

A Bouncing Baby Bacon Bar

Bacon bar
Yes, yes, bacon has jumped the shark. Or is it now nuked the fridge? Whatever. 2009 is totally going to be about goat anyway. Don’t forget that I told you so when you’re snacking on chocolate-covered strips of billy goat meat like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

But I do love these mini Vosges bars that I just discovered this weekend at a Park Slope bodega (or is a deli if they sell fancy candies and organic stuff?). Maybe two bucks for a few bites is kind of steep, but it’s really all the candy I need. I also kind of like how they use milk chocolate instead of trying to class it up with 80% cacao that just tastes like a mouthful of mud. Salty, smoky meat and almonds just seem more right with a sweeter, creamier chocolate.

I’m glad that I saved the two I bought on the way from Union Hall to Bogota Latin Bistro because I ended up barfing on the street shortly thereafter and that would be a serious waste of candy. I’m still not sure what happened as I rarely throw up (which is why I'm so down on unbelievable emotional vomiting on screen) and never after a mere four drinks. I blame cahaça.  Is this what people mean when they say, "I can’t drink like I used to?" Maybe someone should invent miniature caipirinhas, too.

Sunday Night Special: Roast Chicken & Lentils With Mustard Vinaigrette

Roast chicken and lentils

I’ve never roasted a chicken, plain and simple, and that doesn’t seem right. After reading the article in the New York Times’ food section this week about Simon Hopkinson and the “most useful cookbook of all time,” I was reminded that I’d received Roast Chicken and Other Stories for Christmas last year but it got lost among all the other cookbooks I’ve accumulated since December.

The title cracked both my sister (who sent the gift) and I up, as if roast chicken was a self-evident story. Just wait till you hear the one about cod. As it turns out the book really is quite useful, straightforward and anecdotal. I enjoy cookbooks where you get a sense of the author’s personality (assuming they have a likeable one) and opinions.

I think roast chicken is one those so simple it’s hard to do right things like making an omelet. And why bother when you can pick up a perfectly good rotisserie chicken for around $6. I also shy away because this is the type of preparation where the bird itself makes a difference. I’m a horrible person who buys grocery store chickens. I tried imagining what a specimen from Bresse, or more accessible for Americans, a Blue Foot, might taste like. Maybe next time. Maybe never. I can’t even justify paying $20 or so for a run-of-the-mill organic chicken. I’m not there yet. Antibiotic-free was as far could go.

I’ve worked with whole chickens before, but I tend to make things like adobo or curries, never anything European. I hadn’t ever used fresh tarragon before this recipe. One notable difference between ordering from Fresh Direct instead of going to Chinatown is that you don’t have heads and feet with tiny toenails to deal with, though these bony feathery spikes sticking out the wings weirded me out a bit. And there seemed to be more neck attached than usual.

The roast chicken recipe is here on Culinate; it’s really very simple. I had minor trouble, the same trouble that plagues me every Thanksgiving and makes me glad I won’t be cooking a turkey this year. Any juices that are supposed to accumulate in the pan for basting, dry up and burn, then the bird still isn’t cooked after going well beyond the recommended roasting time. And the wine intended to go with the meal gets finished too quickly because there’s so much time spent waiting around for dinner. Ok, I can’t blame my drinking on the oven.

This time I added white wine to the pan to ensure extra liquid, and the drying up problem still happened. And after 45 minutes in the oven with 15 minutes resting with the door open, the skin still wasn’t as brown as I’d like and the juices weren’t completely running clear when I tried slicing the meat. I ended up having to put the chicken back on 350 for an additional 20 minutes. I swear it’s the crappy Magic Chef brand oven that I’ve had in every Brooklyn apartment. The temperature is clearly not accurate.

The chicken survived, but I wasn’t completely wowed. I hate to admit that despite all my butter rubbing and herb and lemon stuffing, the flavor was more subdued than I’d like. The flesh was really moist, though. Maybe it just needed more salt. I’m a chronic under-salter and with all the recent salt-is-the-devil articles, I’m becoming even more paranoid about my health.

Roast chicken

No, I’m not going to make it all pretty for a picture (as if I ever do). It’s just me eating tonight and I don’t want to wash extra plates. You get the idea whether or not it’s sitting in the pan.

Trying to maintain a French-ish theme, I also made Salade Chaude aux Lentilles Avec Vinaigrette à la Moutarde minus the salad part. No arugula, just the green lentils in a vinaigrette. I hate to admit that these rich, tart legumes were tastier than the chicken.

Half-Caf Low-Fat Quarter-Carat


Not technically food, but damn close. A jewelry box tucked inside your macchiato cup? Does an engagement get any dreamier? I would’ve preferred a loose ring bobbing around in the coffee for dramatic effect.

Really, I was more fascinated to learn that NYC has drive-through Starbucks (this Coney Island location is the only one).

Photo courtesy of New York Daily News (I also like photo #5 with the dumpster in the background)

Red Robin

Despite being a Northwest chain, I don’t think I’ve eaten at a Red Robin more than once and nearly two decades ago. I have only a vague youthful memory of restaurant, and the nagging feeling that I perceived it as upscale. I’m not sure if that says more about Oregon or me.

I keep seeing their TV ads and just like with Sonic’s commercials, I instantly feel compelled to look up just where these non-NYC chains exist in these parts.  New Jersey, of course. I figured I could squeeze in a visit while scoping out the Norma Kamali collection at Wal-Mart (kind of eh, but I enjoy being a L instead of an XL at Wal-Mart. Oh, just figured out that I'm now a L by most chain store standards–guess my sugar/starch limiting has finally paid off. Unfortunately, "bottomless fries" will show up later in this missive) and picking up hair darkening shampoo and conditioner at Menlo Park Mall’s Aveda (I overheard the cashier mention her food court break at Chick-fil-A. I totally would’ve gone if Red Robin wasn’t already on my itinerary. Even she knew about the “hidden” NYU cafeteria Chick-fil-A).

James wanted to go to Five Guys, but what’s the fun in that? We can walk to the one in Brooklyn Heights if we wanted. No, I’d rather spend $20 in tolls and drive 34 miles to find out that frankly, even a well-done Five Guys burger is kind of preferable to Red Robin’s “gourmet burgers” cooked to an internal temperature of your choice.

Red robin interior It wasn’t so much the food, but the inept service and overall Saturday night suburban mayhem that detracted. Yes, I have standards even for chain restaurants.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the we card if you look under 39 1/ 2 deal. I don’t think they were joking, but I still chortled when asked for my ID and being pointed at the button stating just that pinned to our server’s (who’d just turned 21, we were informed for no reason) shirt. Like if I’m going to illegally purchase drinks, I’m heading to a NJ Red Robin. I know they’re just doing what they’re told, and maybe I should’ve been more weirded out that the bartender who barely looked out of middle-school didn’t card me earlier. I like to believe I don’t look 40+ even to someone half my age.

 Red robin onion ringsWe took cues from the locals and ordered the onion ring appetizer, which is admittedly kind of an odd starter. And it practically became a dessert since we weren’t brought our tower until asking about it after we’d received our burgers. This is the glitch that soured me. I don’t think it’s petty to have a separation between courses whether that is onion rings on a pole served with dipping sauces and a jalapeno laden burger or prawns with sunchoke puree and garlic confit and grass fed burger with Cotswold cheese (the same timing issue bothered me at James in Prospect Heights a few months ago).

I’m tempted to declare chipotle sauce (mayo) the new ranch but it appears that America is embracing the two equally, together. Both came with these onion rings. And the combo isn’t exactly new to Frito-Lay or Rachael Ray, for that matter.

Red robin 5 alarm burger I’m not one who rambles on about fat percentages or meat blend ratios, but I will say that lately I’ve swung into the less is more camp. If you can’t even taste the meat in your burger, then what’s the point? There was a bit too much going on in this 5 Alarm Burger, which was more than obvious from the name. All the lettuce, jalapeños, salsa and tomatoes overwhelmed and I couldn’t even detect the pepperjack cheese even though I could see it. Really, I was more interested in the fries and onion rings and consequently grew too full too quickly to eat more than a third of this. Beer and starch has a way of doing that.

The thick cut fries sprinkled with their trademark seasoning (that also sits in a big plastic shaker on the table) were tasty enough that I ate most of them, but I’d much prefer a thin crispy fry to a fat meaty one. I think they make them hearty on purpose to eliminate anyone actually taking them up on their bottomless fry promise. Yes, you heard that right–all-you-can-eat fries.

Red Robin * 6200 Hadley Rd., South Plainfield, NJ

Korhogo 126

1/2 It must’ve been sometime around Labor Day that I decided to finally check out Korhogo 126. It had transformed from Bouillabaisse 126 quite some time ago but I’d never been compelled to pay a visit. I’m not sure why, it didn’t seem casual enough for a weeknight and it never crossed my mind on a weekend. Unfortunately, it was closed with only a handwritten sign about being on vacation. That seemed a bit suspicious since summer was over by most standards (not mine, but many).

Instead, I just went to Alma, acceptable Mexicanish food not worth writing about more than once, around the corner.

After hearing they were open again and with lower prices, I figured now was the time to return. That block of Union Street is a bit wonky with hours (House of Pizza and Calzone used to be closed randomly, Ferdinando’s also keeps weird hours and…well, not related to hours but is Calexico really that good? I’m glad that something’s going into the Schnack space but I’m not convinced that I will be crazy about these burritos, Vendy award winners or not) so I half expected Korhogo to be closed. But on a prime Friday night, Halloween, no less, lights were on and a decent amount of diners were scattered throughout the back patio than the main room. I prefer dining indoors during all seasons.

I recall there being a crab cake on the menu, which seemed to have been replaced with $6 cod fritters. And in addition to the sparse selections of wines by the glass hovering around $10, there was a $7 white and red on offer. I’ve already forgotten what the red was other than that it came from France, and I ordered it. But other than that, I couldn’t say how the prices and menu have changed.

Korhogo 126 escargot kedjenou

We split the escargot kedjenou because how often do you get to try snails served atypically, sans garlic butter and parsley? From what I understand, kedjenou is a tomato-based Cote d’Ivoire stew that typically uses chicken. This dish exemplified chef Abdhul Traore’s style:  heavy on the French with small nods to Africa. At least I don’t think they’re using puff pastry, escargot and asparagus near the Gulf of Guinea. I immediately realized this was going to be refined food, nothing earthy and gritty (I don’t mind a little earth and grit).

The ratatouille-like sauce was subtly perfumed with licoricey star anise. The snails didn’t have a pronounced flavor and if no one told you what they were you might think the firm dark blobs were meaty mushrooms.

Korhogo 126 agneau casbah

My lamb shank, a perfect mix of tender meat, cripsness and fat, owed more to Northern Africa. This was exactly what I had been wanting last month when I landed at Tanoreen with a lamb craving (and this one is $7 cheaper, I might add). Oddly, here too, the accompaniments were very western: super buttery mashed potatoes, green beans, carrots and squash. I tend to think hotel food when I see that combo, but I wasn’t bothered so much. I bet it would’ve been great with attieke, a false couscous made from cassava that I recently became acquainted with.

Korhogo 126 flounder

This was a flounder special, which I did not eat. The sides were similar to the lamb.

As we were finishing, a group of Nigerian women (and one male) showed up to celebrate a self-proclaimed girl’s night out. I wouldn’t have described the place as a destination restaurant but I’m glad that it is attracting clientele beyond Carroll Gardens.

Korhogo 126 * Union St., Brooklyn, NY