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Picnic Garden

H Mart—at least the brand new one in Edison, New Jersey that anchors a sprouted-up strip mall—is the grocery store of my dreams. I would swap it for Fairway without a second thought. We have one of these Korean supermarkets in Flushing, but as with so much of New York City, businesses become larger, cleaner, brighter, better stocked and more amenable the farther you get from the city’s center, like a pond ripple showing suburbia’s finest at the outer rings.

I’ve never seen a supermarket with so many free samples (and we’d just come from Costco—I don’t know where they’ve gotten the reputation for being sample-centric—in my experience if you see one lady handing out apple pieces, it’s a good day), an entire entourage of tables along the perimeter of the produce section offered tastes of miso soup, roasted sweet potatoes and more.

Upon entering, to your left you’ll see a food court with a vendor, Kono, not Kyedong, selling fried chicken, pork belly and blood sausage, and at the edge is a small platform featuring a lone microphone that apparently can be commandeered by anyone shopping or eating to sing pop songs and ballads. On the right is a tray-and-tongs bakery, Tous Les Jours, that was fairly decimated around 6pm. What most caught my eye when walking in the door was the sign reading no photography (as well as the two teens with Jesus signs strumming guitars and singing on the sidewalk). It only implied what I was feeling, that this was no mere grocery store but an attraction that had already drawn enough snap-happy to the annoy of the management.

So, no photos of the take-out by the pound tables including marinated meats destined for the grill, refrigerated walls of kimchi, pickles and preserves, the pristine fish section with everything clearly marked and ordering instructions. And now I know where to buy a variety of fish heads, a problem I encountered when trying to reproduce Singaporean fish head curry. Most shocking, considering the store is primarily Korean with a few nods the rest of Asia, was seeing fresh galangal. I’ve always relied on a mushy knob I keep in the freezer and slice off as needed for Thai curry pastes.

Picnic grill exterior

H Mart is flanked by two restaurants, a tofu house and Picnic Garden, an all-you-can-grill Korean bbq joint that also has a branch in Flushing. The interior is larger than it appears from the outside with three separate seating areas—each table with an individual grill, of course—and a central buffet that houses rice, a few side dishes and a selection of marinated meats to be taken back to your seat.

Picnic garden first round

I was initially confused by the process—it’s not leisurely or solitary. If you come back to your table with a small plate of food intended to feed just yourself, to cook on your own, you would be wrong. As soon as a head-setted staffer sees meat at your table, they come by, toss it on the grill and begin snipping it into bite-sized pieces. They might come back in a few minutes and turn everything over.

Picnic garden plate of meat

Third round

I finally got into the groove. You’re supposed to bring back a big plate teaming with meat for the entire table (in my case, just two of us) it all cooks up at once and then you dip in chile paste, wrap with lettuce and eat. Another round means a swapped out grill and you start the process again (I would hate to be the grill-scrubber at the end of the night—on the way to the bathroom I saw an enormous wheeled plastic tub filled with the dirty once-used metal grates).

Picnic garden grill
The selection is more than sufficient but not huge. For non-grillable items there were kimbap, octopus legs, noodles, tempura vegetables, fried chicken, ribs, whole grilled fish, romaine chunks with chile-flecked dressing and a few more things that I’m forgetting. For meats they had shrimp, pork belly, pork ribs, kalbi, bulgogi beef, chicken, sausages—no organ meats or soondae. Dessert is a plate of oranges.

Picnic grill buffet

Picnic grill interior

It’s fun, you do get your $27 worth (the dinner price on weekends–$15 during the week sounds like a bargain). I only wish they had beer instead of barley tea. Maybe alcohol would just induce lingering?

Picnic Garden * 1763 Route 27, Edison, NJ

Me & My Egg Roll

Earlier this week I spied a shocking development on the corner of Court and 2nd. I’m surprised I noticed it at all because normally during my home-to-subway walk I’m zombified but speedy (more 28 Days Later  than Walking Dead) rarely noticing anything in my path. There was no doubt about this, though. Even I could see that Me & My Egg Roll, the Chinese takeout place with the best name for miles, had not only re-opened its permanently gate-down, lights-out dining room, but was now advertising Vietnamese sandwiches and bubble tea on a crisp new awning.

Me & my egg roll awning

When I moved to Carroll Gardens (last week I realized I’m one-month shy of seven years, far longer than I’ve lived in any one place in my adult life. No wonder I’ve become so burnt out on the neighborhood despite the fondness everyone else in the city seems to have for it) I never would’ve anticipated a banh mi shop appearing around the corner. I’d given up on convenient tacos (do not try convincing me that Calexico and Oaxaca serve real Mexican food) and Vietnamese sandwiches after leaving Sunset Park in 2004.

Better late than never. And just because I declared a banh mi ban in 2009, doesn’t mean that I’m not happy to finally have the beloved sandwich being made four blocks from my apartment. Luckily, this work-from-home snow day coincided with their opening, so I could pop over during my lunch break.

Me & my egg roll interior

I can’t say if they’ve redecorated the dining room filled with about eight-to-ten four-seaters because I never got a good look at the dim space before (I’m fairly certain that when I did first move here, you could still dine-in).The room is utilitarian with recessed ceiling emanting colorful glowing light and a few pendant lamps for good measure, but not dreary like sitting in the one or two plastic booths you might find at your corner takeout spot. A twosome who appeared to be a middle-aged son and mother were sipping coffees (the woman asked the man if my bubble tea was a smoothie, which reminded jaded me that decade-old Taiwanese trends aren’t a part of everyone’s word) out of paper cups, a younger man was eating in and waiting a bit for his food like I was and a lot of passerbys stopped to peek inside.

You can order from the Me & My Egg Roll menu (I’ll admit that when I’m in the mood for Chinese-American takeout I choose Wing Hua because they’re the only ones who serve crab rangoon) or the new one, which devotes most space to drinks—37 of them—five sandwiches and three resolutely American salads.

Me & my egg roll banh mi

Banh mi are $5 apiece, which is fair (you don’t want me to tell you about how they were only $1.50 in Portland a million years ago again, do you?) and falls between Chinatown and contemporary Vietnamese in Manhattan pricing.

Me & my egg roll house special The house special was good for an opening day sandwich. One of the staffers admitted that they were still getting it right. Most of the components were there: lunchmeats, cucumbers, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, ground and bbq pork, mayonnaise… but the balance skewed a little sweet, maybe from a sugary pickling liquid and thickly sliced char siu. What it lacked was chiles and the pate, both mentioned on the menu. A little heat and creaminess would’ve added more dimension. Sriricha is always on my shelf, so that was easily rectified. The bread was fresh and pliable with a little chew, though not particularly crackly. Given the neighborhood, it’s probably Italian bread, not a traditional French baguette.

I realized the taro bubble tea was a mistake after I got out the door. The mauve beverage filled with brown orbs draws attention. Also, I needed my arms for balance while trudging through slippery piles of slush and navigating single-file paths carved out of feet of snow (not easy with the amount of dog and stroller traffic in the area—I really don’t enjoy playing chicken with strangers in the slush).

Me & my egg roll bubble tea

I tried squeezing past two boys, shovelers for hire, and one turned to ask me something. Oh no, I read enough police blotters to know that kids are always punching people and snatching their iPhones (I’m more concerned that they’ll discover that I only have a Cliq XT and punch me harder because it’s such a piece of shit phone).

“Where did you get that drink?” he said.

Oh, right, everyone’s into food these days. “Um, at the Chinese place down the street, Me and My Egg Roll,” I replied.

“So, it’s like a milkshake?” he asked.

“Yeah, I like it,” I said and then wondered why I said I like it instead of answering the question. I guess bubble tea is like a milkshake. Did he really need me to go on about Taiwanese tea being co-opted by Vietnamese and now sold by Chinese in Brooklyn? No, that deserves a punch.

Now I wonder if the kids who have been known to eat monochromatic fried combo meals from Styrofoam containers (and get into altercations with the staff) while gathered outside Me & My Egg Roll’s takeout door, will start asking for milkshakes.

Me & My Egg Roll * 407 Court St., Brooklyn, NY


Scarfing Done Well

Mcd scarf

Yum! Brands may be kicking McDonald’s ass in China (as well as its own brands here in the US) but you certainly won’t find a KFC University in Shanghai. So…take that, Colonel Sanders.

Bloomberg gets a look inside of McDonald’s Hamburger University in China, a week-long program that is so selective that you may as well give up and try Harvard instead. The video is worth watching to learn about something important that Susanna Li calls the “people pipeline,” which only makes me think about burgers being people, and to see lucky attendee, Zhou Xiaobu who’s wearing a silky, yellow McDonald’s logo’d scarf that’s kind of cute. Almost cute enough to change my mind about the way certain sects of young people wear scarves with t-shirts and other warm weather attire.

Chain Links: Catering to Local Palettes

Palettes Every few months someone creates a new McDonald’s international food round-up. Can fast food gazpacho shock us anymore? Probably not, but I’ll link to it–even though they’ve managed to engage in some serious palate abuse in their URL. [Business Insider]

With the amount of Korean fried chicken chains we’ve received (and I’ve covered) it’s only right that we bombard South Korea with burgers. McDonald’s will be doing their part by doubling their locations. [QSRweb]

Cheesecake Factory will finally be freed of its US confines. The Middle East, a favorite recipient of American chains, will be seeing 22 shops in the next five years. [Nation’s Restaurant News]

Bulgaria is not a country I ever give thought to one way or the other (the only Bulgarian I know is the coffee guy near my office who blurs the line between sexual harassment and ESL charm) but Domino’s has been thinking about it. "The people of Bulgaria will now get to experience the high level of service and quality pizza that customers worldwide enjoy,” says future franchisee, Lazgin Majid. [QSR]

Elevation Burger will be breaking ground in Bahrain. [FastCasual]

Yum! Brands is going gangbusters in China. Sales in China were up 20% year over year in Q3 2010 and down here 8%. [CNNMoney]

Image: Martine's Chocolates

Go Figure: Ladies Love to Bake

Wilton Cooking Channel’s FoodCrafters would have you thinking that the nation is one big Brooklyn with everyone—even dudes—smoking, pickling, distilling or growing.

Not so, finds a Wilton survey. “Food crafting…is the number one hobby for women” and gets broken into baking, decorating and celebrating. No charcuterie or even jam-making in sight (yes, Wilton is a cake pan company). Cake is the most popular celebration dessert (49%), icing is the most popular decorating ingredient (94%), the 21-34 age range a.k.a. moms bake the most (31%) and the midwest and southeast tie for most frequent baking (29%).

CathyChildless women (which I take to mean females with grown children) are most likely to bake from scratch (43%). Scratch bakers in general (38%) are almost neck-and-neck with Sandra Lee acolytes (37%). I’m not sure where Hungry Girl fits into all of this—is using hot cocoa mix, fat-free liquid egg substitute and Splenda to make muffins cooking from scratch, doctoring or something else altogether?

Olive Garden Mash-Up

Cheddar-Bay-Biscuits I heard about the combo Olive Garden/Red Lobster and thought of Das Racist a little bit, but mostly about how much better Cheddar Bay Biscuits are than unlimited breadsticks.

I don’t care for either extreme: ew, chain restaurants or ew, you’re an elitist. No side wins. I’m really just happy that Gawker’s singled-out commenter spelled palate correctly (which is more than I can say for a non-food blog I regularly hate-read and sometimes feel dirty about that just used pallet for a range of colors).

What’s still not clear, is how having two chain restaurants in one building is any more of an economic stimulator than placing them near each other or even in the same parking lot. Bonefish Grill, Cheeseburger in Paradise and Carrabba’s have been doing the mash-up style for some time, though I’ve never seen a three-in-one.

Jordan’s Lobster Dock

Like an out-of-touch politician clueless about the price of milk (I have no idea, myself), I don’t know what lobsters normally sell for. $6.99 seems like a deal, though. The prospect of cheap lobster was enough to motivate me onto the Belt Parkway to Sheepshead Bay on a freezing Sunday afternoon, a neighborhood I normally associate with summer and Clemente’s.

Jordan's lobster dock

Clowns to the left, jokers to the right… Jordan’s is stuck in the middle of a Cold Stone Creamery and TGI Friday’s.

Jordan's lobster dock seating

When you first walk in, Jordan’s has a casual eat-in restaurant where you can order platters of fried seafood, chowder and sandwiches. (And sadly, no bread bowls. I’ll never be able to erase the sound of a grown man’s voice, heavily Brooklyn-accented, on the JFK air train, describing a chicken salad in a bread bowl at a place called Jordan’s as “bangin’.”) Up a few stairs, you’ll see the retail market and where the $6.99 lobsters, clams and assorted shellfish can be bought to take home. Cooking soft-shell crabs at home is as far as I’ve gone with kill-your-own food—and I was more squeamish about it than I’d like to admit as a carnivore—so I chickened-out and had them steam our two lobsters for us.
Jordan's lobster roll

While waiting, we went back downstairs and got some snacks. Jordan’s $15.99 lobster roll is served with a plastic container of coleslaw and a foil packet of Hellman’s. Barely a sandwich, this creation is really a pile of chunky lobster meat atop a flap of iceberg lettuce and a nondescript bun. I’m absolutely not a connoisseur of the city’s recent-ish lobster roll deluge, so I can only compare with the buttery Connecticut-style specimen I had at Red Hook Lobster Pound right before Christmas (which unfortunately, I didn’t photograph for comparison).

This lobster was a little overly chilled and stiff, though still sweet, and there was double the quantity of what I was served in Red Hook. Less delicate, for sure. This was a manly lobster roll.  I only wish that I had a beer (they do serve alcohol but I don’t go in for hair of the dog cures) and could’ve sat outside instead of being forced indoors by the snow and slush.

Somehow, I forgot to take a photo of the most important thing: the cooked lobsters, two enormous two-and-a-half pounders too large for any plates in my house.

Jordan’s Lobster Dock * 3165 Harkness Ave., Brooklyn, NY


Whether it’s on Twitter, blogs or even Nightline, I can’t seem to escape mentions of The Cosmopolitan. It’s unsettling. If you’re allergic to hype yet aren’t quite in the market for Robuchon, Sage, Chicago chef Shawn McClain's farm-to-table (not yet done to death in Vegas) restaurant in the Arias, strikes a satisfying balance. It’s stylish and adult with serious food.

As we now know, Las Vegas is the most expensive dining city in the US and indeed, there are entrees at Sage that approach the $50 mark. It’s why the four-course $79 signature menu—which is more of a prix fixe than a tasting—is good value. An additional $40 for wine (or beer) pairings didn’t seem outrageous either as long as you’re not set on prestige bottles.

Sage tuna tartare with marcona almonds

Tuna tartare with marcona almonds was the one-bite amuse. I was surprised at how accommodating the restaurant was.  (Then again, I imagine that non-stuffiness is part of the city's attraction for many.) An older Russian couple who were seated next to us weren’t drinking alcohol, only ordered soup and stated that they did not like seafood, so they were brought a different opening treat (I couldn't see or hear what it was).

Sage wagyu beef tartare

Wagyu Beef Tartare 
Crushed Caper Aïoli/Slow Poached Egg/Crispy Chocolate

I might eat beef tartare one or two times a year, so it was very strange that I ended up being presented with the dish and ordering it two nights in a row, though technically in two separate years. Obviously, the chocolate was wild card, and the wafers were bitter and a little nutty like cocoa nibs, not sweet.

Sage maine dayboat scallops

Maine Dayboat Scallops
Braised Oxtail/Wild Mushrooms/Salted Caramel Reduction

This also sounded like it had the potential to be sweet, but wasn’t. The broccoli rabe helped balance the richness.

Sage 48 hour beef belly
48 Hour Beef Belly
Chestnut Puree/Fig Glaze/Celery Hearts

Once again, a sweet-meat combination. The other choice, an Iberico pork loin also had a candied component: smoked dates.

Sage brioche bread pudding
Brioche Bread Pudding
Roasted Pecans/Meyers Rum Sauce/Brown Butter Ice Cream

I’ve stated my preference for gooey, substantial American desserts before, and this is exactly what I got.

Sage * 3730 Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, NV

The Many Meanings of Skimpy

Images The Fork in the Road bloggers may be the masters of Village Voice’s Top Ten food lists, but today Michael Musto (who had one of the more compellingly mundane and unadventurous food diaries on Grub Street) chimes in with his Top Six Worst Chain Restaurants (yet the URL says five–wonder which was the last minue addition?). The only thing I take issue with is awarding Olive Garden the top spot for “skimpy portions.” I don’t think he’s ever been to an Olive Garden.

The Blues at B Flat

B flat cocktail I’m fairly certain that blue cocktails are gauche. (I know because I spent a few years in the ‘90s drinking MD 20/20 Hawaiian Blue by choice. The more coconut-flavored Windex-y malt liquor that washed through your system, the more you could envision yourself lazily swimming to the shoreline pictured on the bottle’s label. “I’m half-way there…yep, reaching the sand…Zzzz.”) Unrespectable or not, this pale lagoon of a drink that blends prosecco, yuzu juice and Calpico with a few dashes of blue curacao that looks like a secret elixir when stored in a small, transparent metal-spouted bottle, keeps it classy. The bartender at Japanese, jazzy B Flat was shaking up a number of these seemingly nameless cocktails, one for a beefy man in khakis. No one can resist the aqua liquid once they’ve laid eyes on it.

Late to the game, I was given a standard champagne flute. It looked more special when served in the taller, narrow, straight-walled glass that the earlier patrons received. The basement lounge is busy with good reason; happy hour, featuring $6 cocktails, two signatures per the standard spirits, lasts until 8pm.

I tried a Sazarac and a Manhattan, both whiskey choices (hey, I was celebrating some good fortune—I don’t know if I’ll be able to take 2011 if it all turns out as well as the first two weeks of January) and couldn’t resist also trying the baby blue drink before rushing off to Sushi Azabu–it was a Japanese subterranean kind of night. The cocktail tastes like fizzy, sweetened grapefruit juice—if asked to describe its color based on taste alone, I would say orange—and was a nice send off after the two prior stiff brown beverages.

B Flat * 277 Church St., New York, NY