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Cheese Sandwiches Are a Dish Best Served Cold

Confused as to why a cold cheese sandwich, fruit and carton of milk is somehow more punitive than going lunchless. Isn’t free blah food better than no food at all? I ate many a PB&J/orange (ok, I might've also gotten a granola bar) bagged lunch in grade school and managed to survive. And please don't tell me this is about self-esteem.

Then again,  I used to sneak pinches of processed American cheese out of my school cafeteria's walk-in fridge so I probably would've enjoyed a cold cheese sandwich. Yes, I've written about processed cheese on more than one occasion–here and here–because I love it that much.

The First Rule of Raw Milk Club

It’s not easy for me to articulate why, but I hate community (I’m also not fond of the concept of legacy). In theory, likeminded people who do things together or at least operate in overlapping social spheres with common goals would be positive, yet so much fostering of taste and values only ends up feeling inbred and smug to me.

There’s nothing wrong with creating your own chocolate from cacao or butchering your own locally sourced meat or pickling, like everything. I’ll concede that it all sounds very cool. (It’s funny that this is all coming to fruition. Eons ago, ok, in 2000, I worked at a short-lived culinary start-up founded by a respected food writer whose byline you see less regularly than you used to. I distinctly recall a group excursion to long-gone Pearson’s Barbecue where a few of us were jokingly speculating when hipsters would start getting into homemade sausages and charcuterie. Who knew it would be a reality in eight years?)

But pegging this behavior to a particular neighborhood (yes, the Times article is titled “Brooklyn’s New Culinary Movement” but this trend really only thrives in a northwestern swath of the borough among a very narrow segment of Kings County's 2.5 million residents) only serves to mythologize a scene. Maybe it’s scenes that I have issues with not community.

Gabrielle Langholtz, editor of Edible Brooklyn stated, “Every person you pass has read Michael Pollan, every person has thought about joining a raw milk club, and if they haven’t made ricotta, they want to.” Really? Raw milk clubs? Exclusive. How does one become a member in this secret dairy society? I’m waiting for a password-protected speakeasy offering unpasteurized delights. It probably already exists somewhere on my block, but you have to look like a daguerreotype come to life to gain entry.

Perhaps I’m just a killjoy. I can’t get into the countless indie cook-offs: pies, chili, casseroles that also a growing Brooklyn staple, any more than I want to be a part of chef worship, the glam other extreme exemplified by the South Beach Food & Wine Festival being covered to death by a certain strata of food blogs this week.

My feelings on this so-called movement can be summed up using the same words Bruni used to describe Buttermilk Channel, the restaurant spitting distance from my apartment that was today’s one-star review (can’t believe I’m using his prose to express my feelings). “It’s laudable and predictable in equal measures.” True that.

Of course I love food; I just find it hard to care about precious foodie fads, and ones so close to home, no less.  One might argue that the problem lies with me rather than those pursuing their supposed culinary passions. It’s very possible that I’m simply jealous of artisanal entrepreneurs because I’m tied to a day job for survival (who could afford $8 bars of chocolate without steady work?) Oh, and that there isn’t a single foodstuff I’d even be inclined to make, perfect and sell.

Hmm, the comments section of the Diner's Journal is getting mildly heated (the space was intended for questions to be passed along to the subjects of the Brooklyn-centric article, but it's filling up with cranky statements instead). I'm surprised that there's surprise over a backlash.


It seems that Mercat sporadically invites guest chefs from restaurants in Catalonia. I’ve never paid much attention but the latest crew, Paula Casanovas and Felip Planas, compelled me to pay a visit for no other reason than I’ve been on a Spanish food kick this week (I know, I was just obsessed with visiting the Yucatan, and now I thinking about a March trip to Madrid).

Unfortunately, there was no prix fixe as advertised; instead everything was listed a la carte. I don’t know if this was just poor execution or a genuine switch and bait (as a miffed Grub Street commenter double posted). For instance, our server obviously had been instructed to tell diners about the chefs and to explain what El Bulli to the unknowing, but didn’t seem prepared for anyone to actually order from the special menu.

Mercat canelons de rabo de toro

We picked two items from the diy tasting menu and supplemented what I assumed would be small portions with cheese and cured meats. Yes, the canelons de rabo de toro/oxtail-stuffed pasta with langoustine was tiny. So fleeting, I can scarcely remember my few shared bites.

Mercat coca de pato con peras

The coca was more substantial. I liked this a lot. Four slices of rare duck were served atop puff pastry with a pear compote tinged with cinnamon. I initially assumed the creamy crown was melted cheese but now that I think about it, it may have been aioli. Duck with pears is a traditional Catalan combination and definitely less candied than the l’orange style fruitiness that ducks seems to get saddled with here.

Mercat embotits assortment

This was quite a bounty of charcuterie, or rather embotits. The selection included—morcilla, jamon serrano, lomo, sobrassada, xoriç, llonganissa—everything Mercat has at their disposal minus jamon Iberico. They throw you off with all of the Catalan, it's all those Ks and Xs. At first I was puzzled by xoriç until I deduced that it was simply chorizo. Sautéed to oily, crispy perfection and mounded on a slice of bread, it was my favorite cured meat of all. I’m also still convinced that Americans would love the lush, also cinnamonny, morcilla, as long as no one told them it was blood sausage. It’s not even in the same league as other Bizarre Foods fodder.

Mercat cheese plate

Garrotxa, la peral and idizabal, goat cow+sheep and sheep. I wasn’t expecting la peral to be a blue, though I’m glad it was. The flavor was strong and salty with a creamy texture. Not overpowering at all.

Mercat brussels sprouts & romescu

Ok, produce. Doesn’t Spanish food get knocked for the seeming absence of vegetables? I love Brussels sprouts, especially this charred version that I imagine was meant to mimic calçots. The vegetable is grilled to blackened sweetness and served with a rich, nutty romesco for dipping.

Mercat churros

And dessert: simple churros and chocolate.

Mercat * 45 Bond St., New York, NY

Clover Club

While I would’ve been content sitting at home with a Hitachino red rice ale watching bad SCI FI monster schlock like Wyvern, around midnight I decided a Valentine’s drink was necessary even if it was technically the 15th by then.

I’d never been to Clover Club, having lost interest after a failed mid-week attempt right after they opened. They’re about seven months in, right? Time for a spot check. The bar looked full from the outside but there were a few open two-seaters. Perfect.

Clover club improved whiskey cocktail

I like my spirits brown—and manly, apparently. Only dudes had this drink in front of them. I don’t like sweet beverages and The Improved Whiskey Cocktail was a fine example of this dry genre. Rye, Maraschino, the requisite absinthe (is there a cocktail that doesn’t either employ the once forbidden spirit or elderflower liquor?) and a dash of bitters created a bitter, herbal cherry blend. The massive cylinder ice cube could either be construed as thoughtful measure to ensure little dilution or as a way to make small amounts of alcohol look more plentiful. Glass half-empty or half-full?

Clover club southside fizz

The Southside Fizz, not mine, kind of riffed on a Pimm’s Cup with cucumber, mint and gin and club soda. I know there isn’t any mint in a Pimm’s Cup but similar idea, and with a big fat leaf, no less.

Clover club cheese plate
I couldn’t tell you what the three cheeses on the cheese plate were because our server was completely unintelligible and I didn’t have the heart to make him repeat himself. We originally tried ordering something with bacon (I can’t even remember what) but it turned out we’d incorrectly been given the brunch menu.

The namesake Clover Club cocktail (gin, lemon, dry vermouth and raspberry syrup) and a ginger cocktail that I drank but can find no evidence of online (I don’t understand eating and drinking establishment that set up websites, then never add anything beyond a homepage).

Clover club namesake & ginger cocktails
By 1pm the large room had thinned out considerably. Unsurprising, since South Brooklyn is sleepy that way. Yet I shouldn’t have spoken so soon because within ten minutes of each other two giant groups showed up and commandeered rows of tables on both sides of us, pinning me in claustrophobically. It’s like when a subway car is 20% full and two people decided to inexplicably sandwich you on the bench. 

So, yes I scoff at the Cobble Hill elderly who can’t stay out past 1am, then I become the
fuddy duddy when surrounded by raucousness. It didn’t really matter; two $11 cocktails is my financial limit anyway. We moved on to Brooklyn Social where it’s not exactly rock bottom either but at least I had a settee to myself.

Clover Club * 210 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY

Aw, Nuts

Is it normal to eat five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a day? Someone I know was asked by HR to have a talk with one of his staff members who has been taking advantage of the free peanut butter and jelly provided to the company as part of some health initiative. Said culprit also walked off with three slices of a cake (king cake, I wonder?) another coworker had brought back from a trip to New Orleans.

These are people who make what I assume to be six figures so the greedy gus may be hungry, but he’s certainly not hard up for food. Is there a logical explanation?

One, I think it’s funny that this type of thing would get reported to a superior (my company doesn’t even have an HR department). And two, how on earth do you approach such a topic with an employee? “So, I hear you really enjoy your PB&Js?” Maybe I could get Social Qs to advise
(and yes, I'm still pissed that comments are no longer allowed on that column).

I Don’t Even Eat Bananas

If Denny’s is anti Nannerpuss, who needs them. We don’t have them in NYC, anyway. More importantly, where can I find a restaurant that serves an octo-banana atop a pile of pancakes?

Wow, I love this mom who rigged up her own Nannerpuss. (Heavens, it’s completely SFW.)

Yes, it’s taken me a while to digest some of those Super Bowl ads.

Jean Georges

1/2 There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to Valentine’s Day restaurant choices in my household. Last year I was surprised with bizarre, unromantic, now-shuttered Crave while this year during widespread economic gloom and doom, I was treated to Jean Georges. No complaints, here. And knowing my aversion to gimmickry, reservations were made mid-week rather than the 14th proper.

We went all out (though not so with wine, an apply-pear-ish 2001 German Riesling that I did not pick out but enjoyed) and ordered the seven-course signature tasting menu. I’ve never eaten at Jean Georges before so sampling classics seemed like the way to go. Honestly, I would’ve been fine with the $98 three-course prix fixe (I was curious about the Jordan almond-crusted duck breast despite reading about the dish being too sweet in more than one source. I love candied savories, though.) but James seemed hell bent on the egg caviar, which came with a $25 supplement charge with the lower-priced option. In his mind, this was thriftier because you were getting more food and not paying for extras.

Jean georges amuses

A shrimp egg roll and tiny Boston lettuce leaf, chicken broth spiked with meyer lemon and salmon with what I swear was said to be kumquat though I don’t recall tasting it and see no evidence of said fruit in this photo. This trio summed up what was to come: flavors that were sharp while remaining refined overall, heavy on the salt and acid with the occasional tiny nod to Asia.

Jean georges egg caviar

Ah, the eggs topped with eggs. The insides are an insanely creamy blend of egg, vodka and crème fraiche while the saline caviar adds a nice popping texture to the smooth interior layer. I never would’ve ordered this a la carte but I now understand why it is a classic. Total food porn.

Jean georges scallops, cauliflower, caper-raisin emulsion

Sea Scallops with Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion was actually the first course I would’ve ordered off the prix fixe because I was picturing something delicate and sweet. Oddly, this wasn’t dried grape sugary in the least but tart with a sauce that tasted of curry and mustard (but very well may have contained neither).

Jean georges garlic soup with thyme, frog legs

Young Garlic Soup with Thyme and Sauteed Frog's Legs. I didn’t feel the urge to dip the crispy appendages into the vivid, strongly seasoned broth (that salt and acid I was talking about) with my hands as suggested but did appreciate the warm water finger bowls strewn with rose petals that followed.

Jean georges turbot with chateau chalon sauce

Turbot with Chateau Chalon Sauce is another type of dish that would never occur to me to order. Just too simple. But of course that’s not true at all. The fish was poached to just-right firmness, the wine-based sauce was rich and buttery yet completely light and the miniature cubes of zucchini and tomato added fresh interest (despite not being quintessential February produce).

Jean georges lobster tartine, lemongrass fenugreek sauce, pea shoots

Lobster Tartine with Lemongrass and Fenugreek Broth and Pea Shoots might have been my favorite. Of course I was amused by the presence of fenugreek, now the official culprit of the NYC-area maple syrup smell. Here the subtle natural sweetness paired well with an equally restrained lemongrass flavor and enhanced the pure meaty hunk of lobster and claw. The orange sprinkles around the plate tasted like dried, pulverized shrimp though I imagine it was lobster-derived.

Our server sauced most of these dishes tableside, spooning mine from a silver vessel first. I did notice (as did James) that I tended to get more, which resulted in less for him. I received about 75% of this wonderful sauce and made sure not to waste any by using crusty rolls as edible sponge. James had white plate peeking through the bottom of his peach-colored pool.

Jean georges squab onion compote corn pancake foie gras

Broiled Squab, Onion Compote, Corn Pancake with Foie Gras was the final savory course. Normally, at this point I might be feeling a bit overstuffed but the portions were sensible (the lunch at Robuchon a Galera nearly killed me and there were fewer courses) and I was still excited about what was yet to come. This was the richest dish of all, dark meat spruced up with five-spice, sliver of preserved Meyer lemon and a warm nugget of foie gras. What’s a tasting menu minus foie gras?

I didn’t realize there were two schools of thought on a squab’s degree of doneness until watching this week’s DVRd Top Chef (obviously, I couldn’t simultaneously watch while enjoying this meal). I would say that this version leaned more towards done than rare. Not that it was overcooked, no nitpicking from me if I were a TV cooking competition judge, I just don’t recall seeing much pinkness. It was also impossible to extract all of the meat from bones with a knife and fork. More finger food.

Desserts could be chosen from four themes: winter, apple, caramel or chocolate. Just the night before I proclaimed my love of all things caramelly over chocolate (just like with shoes, purses and babies, I don’t understand where chocolate’s stereotype as a lady obsession comes from) because I enjoy making pointless declarations aloud.

Jean georges caramel dessert

Obviously, I chose caramel. From the top left: Chocolate Pop, Coffee-Cardamom Ice Cream; Vanilla Soda, Liquid Caramel Sphere; Warm Caramel Tart, Crispy Olive-Hazelnut Praline, Caramelized Bacon; Caramel Curd, Dehydrated Sponge, Roasted Pineapple Sorbet. The gooey blob in the front was my favorite. Yes, you can still win me over with bacon, and the also savory olive component added extra intrigue.

Jean georges winter dessert

This is a poorly photographed example of the winter dessert plate. All I remember is that there was a concord grape snow cone, a beignet and something meringue-marshmallowy and that this plate of treats looked more soft and comforting than mine.

Jean georges candies

I was just talking (ok, Twittering) with a friend who was impressed by someone she knew who’d recently received a dessert and candy course (at The London, it turned out). I, too, was wowed by such sweet overload at Robuchon a Galera, my first and recent encounter with this practice. You’re not going to find such overkill if you only ever go out for pizza and veggie burritos, I’m afraid.

I suppose technically these are mignardises not simply candies, but I’m American not French. The mini macarons didn’t taste terribly distinctive from each other. I think they might’ve been chocolate, strawberry and coffee. The gelees and chocolates were nice but the marshmallows—cranberry, vanilla and banana—were most impressive being cut with scissors from a coil tucked in a big glass jar wheeled out on a trolley.

There’s a place in hell for people who don’t eat their sweets. Is it just more refined to leave them on the plate like most of the diners finishing around the same time we did? I’m a freaking diabetic and I still ate mine (justified by only eating Wasa crackers, mushroom soup and oatmeal leading up to dinner, ugh, that sounds so beige and Eastern Bloc). I did manage to save the two take home gift chocolates until the following day.

Jean Georges * 1 Central Park West, New York, NY

Stung by Jollibee

Front of jollibee

I honestly didn’t have high hopes for a Valentine’s Day treat involving Chickenjoy or spaghetti studded with frankfurters at Jollibee on opening day. In the Philippines the homegrown chain is way bigger than McDonald’s. There’s serious nostalgia at work (though not for me, obviously). I could see from blogs that the East Coast’s first branch in Woodside, Queens was tempting visitors from as far as Toronto. James’ Pinoy coworker was packing up his family and heading in from New Jersey’s outer reaches.

Jollibee line down block

I wanted a piece of the action, but went in cautiously expecting a crowd. Sure enough, around 4pm there was a line composed of anxious customers wrapped around the block. We estimated at least a four hour wait. Ack. (Sorry about the oddly colored photos–I'm still getting used to my Christmas gift camera and forgot to change a setting because I rarely take outdoor pics.)

I could stand to wait a few weeks for the hype to die down. Remember how quickly Pollo Campero mania faded? After the initial ruckus, the Guatemalan fried chicken chain couldn’t even sustain enough business in Sunset Park to stay open (there’s still one in Corona, though).

So, we had an impromptu late lunch at Sripraphai instead. No waiting and no photos necessary since I order nearly the same thing every time (crispy watercress salad, crispy pork with chile and basil, drunken noodles and a curry—this time a super bony, more fiery than usual catfish version with apple eggplants).

Valentine's day mithai

Valentine's day flowers from sripraphaiSince no one gave me holiday candies I gifted myself with assorted mithai from Delhi Palace. These colorful sugar bombs will kill you, total diabetes in a box (seriously, everyone thinks that blacks and latinos are the kings of insulin resistance, but Indians have the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes in the city, which I only remember because the New York Times’ article on the topic last year, “Bedeviled by the Sugar Sickness” was illustrated with a photo of Delhi Palace)  but I love the creamy sweet assault on rare occasions.

I almost would’ve forgotten it was Valentine’s Day if I hadn’t been handed plastic wrapped flowers by a waitress at Sripraphai  just before she ran out. By the time we were done eating, the usual Saturday night hordes had amassed in the lobby and outside…and yep, there was still a massive queue at Jollibee. I’ll be back.

Raising Cane


I’m never surprised to see In-N-Out Burger at the top of a list. In this case, the highest customer satisfaction ratings according to a survey by Sandelman & Associates.

What I am surprised by are the regional chains I’ve never heard of. Number two with a 59% overall excellent rating is Baton Rouge-based Raising Cane’s. What on earth is that (and what's up with the horrible apostrophe S) ? Apparently, a whole eatery founded on chicken fingers. And that’s seriously all they serve, either with starches in a similarly tan color palette: Texas toast and crinkle fries, or three crispy strips on a bun.

Only two of the ten restaurants exist in NYC: burrito purveyors Chipotle and Qdoba. Panera Bread and Chick-fil-A can all be found in close proximity to the city. But the rest? I don’t think so. I do know that Pei Wei is the budget P.F. Chang’s only because I have a P.F. Chang’s fetish despite never having set foot in one.

Anyone have other random chains they love? I feel so out of here sometimes.

Chinatown Brasserie

I’m impervious to the elusive charms of Restaurant Week, having had exactly one experience with the promotion seven years ago at Odeon, a month after the World Trade Center attacks. Not that 9/11 had anything to do with my meal but that’s my mind’s association with Restaurant Week. All I recall is that we didn’t end up ordering off the three-course menu and I’ve always had the perception since that one may as well just eat regular food any time during the year and be free of restraints.

Chinatown brasserie interiorWith that said, I went to Chinatown Brasserie Friday based on an extended Restaurant Week promotion. Unfortunately, the version of the menu I’d seen online had peking duck as an entrée choice but this was absent in practice. Damn them. We just ended up ordering the bird flat out since that’s what we had wanted and supplemented the feast with a few dim sum treats.

 Despite the cavernous packed-to-capacity room at 8pm on a weekend, we were given an unusually spacious corner banquette on the slightly elevated floor to the left. I point this out only so that people don’t think I only whine about cold, cramped tables. I was very impressed, and being me, half-suspicious over the desirable seating arrangement. 

Chinatown brasserie elephant-like dumpling
Initially, I missed the googly eyes adhered to the shrimp and pea shoot dumplings. At least I think the black specks were intended to create a face. To me, these screamed elephant—that crease is totally a trunk, right? James was unable to see the pachyderm in these plump, very fresh and green-tasting pockets.

Chinatown brasserie lamb dumplings
These were heartier, both in dough thickness and filling. The lamb potstickers went so fast I can barely remember them. I can justify a $9 appetizer no problem, but I’ll admit it’s hard to suppress thoughts of what regular dim sum costs in comparison. I’ve never had a lamb dumpling (or eyes painted on my wonton wrappers) in Chinatown, though.

Chinatown brasserie peking duck
So, the peking duck was pricey at $48, but quite good and we still spent less (on food, those glasses of Riesling and Huckleberry Finns—rum, huckleberries and mint—add up) than if we’d each ordered the $35 Restaurant Week menu. The skin was super crisp and the dark meat was rich without any greasiness. Still scarred from a paltry half-serving of duck in Beijing, we always make sure to get enough now. Thankfully, the portion was just right split between two, enough to be decadent but not sickening, and the pancakes matched the amount of poultry so no naked duck had to be consumed.

Chinatown Brasserie * 380 Lafayette St., New York, NY