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Go Figure: Watered Down


While hay-smoked bitters are most certainly on the horizon for certain segments of the population, the fastest growing beverage in the chain restaurant world is tap water. I love tap water, but it makes me sad to think of all those garnimals languishing behind the bar at Cheeseburger in Paradise. Those Skinny Pirates won’t be drinking themselves.

People who prefer their water in bottles, have chosen Aquafina as the brand of the year. Panera tops the casual dining list and Subway wins for fast food. Sandwiches rule.

And for reasons I can’t discern, Spanish-dominant Hispanics eat breakfast out more than their English-speaking counterparts. The first meal of the day makes up more than a third of the Spanish-speakers’ total dining occurrences. Not surprisingly, English-speakers, Hispanic or not, are kind of the same. Lunch wins by a smidge. I wonder who eats more breakfast burritos.

Chain Links: Skinny Pirates

Bahama breeze

What is it with D.C.? The nation’s capitol got Nando’s first and now the Asian Chipotle, ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, will open there this summer. I don’t have high hopes, but would be happy if their dishes weren’t over 1,000 calories.

No one will care but me (not even my friend who lives in Woodbridge) but Bahama Breeze, the boozy Caribbean concept from Darden, is coming to Woodbridge, NJ, a town I find myself in at least once a month. Up until now, the nearest location was in Cherry Hill, which I only know because we had the restaurant as a client during my brief 2006 stint at a PR agency and a bunch of unbearable women in my department took a field trip that I only got out of because I had to go to Wales for my sister’s wedding. Two hours each way by car service, and I probably would’ve quit on the spot instead of waiting one more month. I probably wouldn't been forced to drink a Skinny Pirate (Captain Morgans and Diet Coke) though I wouldn't say no to a wood-grilled chorizo slider.

P.F. Chang’s is going to Canada. They may as well.

Turkey just opened its first Carl’s Jr. in the Cevahir Shopping Mall. The mall appears to already have Popeye’s, Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Krispy Kreme, Sbarro and Pizza Hut (it doesn’t look like the Turkish have gone Chinese with the salad bars yet).

Everyone wants to break into India, including Pollo Tropical, Rita’s Water Ice, Applebee’s, Johnny Rockets, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Carl’s Jr., Crepes and Coffee, Moe's Southwest Grill, Carvel and Denny’s. The latter will have menus “stripped free of beef and pork,” which makes me very concerned that Mumbai will never experience Moons Over My Hammy.

Má Pêche

As part of my recent initiative to eat a real lunch every few weeks, I ended up at Má Pêche one-day-shy of its first anniversary. Apparently, 364 days is how long it takes me to eventually try a restaurant (and I won’t be back, at least not during the day, anytime soon, if only because 35 minutes each way during a workday just isn’t feasible).

I shared two versions of the $25 prix-fixe (which never end up being a bargain after ordering two glasses of wine—it was nice seeing a Jura wine by the glass on a short list, though) with a friend.

Ma peche summer rolls

We were hesitant about summer rolls. Would they be any different that at a nicer Vietnamese restaurant? They were certainly heftier with more pork (there’s an unseeable slab on the far side of the roll) and greens than one would normally see. What at first I thought was sugar cane turned out to be a fried wonton, resembling a rolled wafer cookie. I liked the added crunch.

Ma peche pork & oxtail terrine

Oxtail terrine with pickled carrots, mushrooms and violet mustard skewed more French. I would’ve probably preferred this first course if I had been dining alone.

And the rosy slices of duck breast and Jimmy Dean-esque puck (in looks only) of duck sausage with spaetzle would’ve been my main. Super meaty, so what.

Ma peche rice noodles

As it was, the half portion of duck was just right with shared rice noodles, sheets formed into tubes not strands and sautéed for textural contrast. Other than pork and what appeared to be fried shallots, I’m not sure what else was in this dish. This looks a little more naked than versions I’ve seen online.

We took our third course, double chocolate and corn cookies, to go. I forgot to take a photo, but I did not forget to eat the sizeable brown cookie as an early evening snack. I think it broke my pancreas.

Má Pêche * 15 W 56th St., New York, NY


Chain Links: Snobs Unite

Mediterranean-Diet It’s touchy—and humorous—business when Pulitzer Prize winners review chain restaurants. I should point the delusional Carrabba’s commenter who said I was “the snobbiest restaurant reviewer ever” to Jonathan “I will always be the snob” Gold’s take on Olive Garden.

I love a good debunking, so I was happy to hear that the Mediterranean diet is a myth and that everyone on the region is fat and 75% of Greeks are overweight. I was more happy, though, to learn about the existence of Roadster Diner, an American-themed chain in Beirut. Why can’t cheese fries coexist with hummus and grilled eggplant?

Nando’s, the South African grilled chicken chain that’s popular in much of the world, (I ate at, but never blogged about the one in Penang) is reportedly going to expand in the US beyond its three measly D.C.-area locations. Where? That’s not revealed.

Apparently, there is a South African restaurant called 10 Degrees South in Atlanta that could be turned into in a national chain if one of the founders of Houston’s has anything to do with it. Will piri piri be the new chipotle?

Millennials May Be Pre-Gaming, but Seniors Are Drunks


Eric Asimov of the Times seems surprised that 26% of Americans, particularly younger people, drink wine without food. Perhaps I am an immature wino  because I don’t find anything unusual about this. I can’t possibly be the only one who might have a pre-dinner glass of wine at a bar.

A Harris Poll released today shows that matures are the most inclined to drink daily, at 11% and increase in daily consumption seems tied to increase in age. At least I have something to look forward to as I wither.

Popular drinks by age: youngsters drink more vodka than anyone else, shockingly, Gen X drinks the most beer and seniors excel at nearly everything else in the liquor cabinet, including wine (domestic and imported), bourbon, gin and scotch. Brandy is shunned by all.

Hunan House

It wasn’t that I thought pupu platters and moo shu pork were Hunan food; I’d never even considered that regional Chinese food existed. And I can’t fault Gresham, Oregon or the era when I took my first job bussing tables at Hunan Garden. Even twenty years later in a city filled with actual Chinese people, we have kung pao and lo mein slingers with names like Hunan Balcony and Szechuan Delight.

Luckily, we also have restaurants representing less-celebrated corners of China like Dongbei, Quingdao and Fujian, something that not all cities in the US have. (I truly didn’t understand when in the ‘90s a Queens transplant to Portland complained about the city’s lack of good Chinese food. Many of the restaurants serving Chinese and Thai at the time were really Vietnamese.)

And finally, Hunan food. I’ve gathered from reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, sampling the Hunan section of Grand Sichuan’s menu and a meal at a Hunan restaurant in Shanghai, which is about as close as I’ll get to Changsha in the immediate future, Hunan food is spicy like Sichuan cuisine—some say spicier— but doesn’t use the tingly peppercorns.

Hunan house pig's ear salad

I didn’t find the food at Hunan House to be particularly chile hot. The cold pigs’ ear appetizer was mildly spiced and consisted of chewy ribbons of meat and fat lightly slicked with oil in a very straightforward presentation that was more about texture than strong flavor. I kind of missed the orange pool of oil that dresses similar Sichuan dishes.

Hunan house chairman mao's pork

Chairman Mao’s pork, a rich star anise-heavy braise of pork belly cubes with green bursts of wilted spinach and sliced scallions to trick you into thinking the dish contains healthy components, has always been a favorite from Grand Sichuan and was successful here, too.

Hunan house fish head

I had no idea fish heads were part of the Hunan canon because I’ve tended to encounter the toothy castoffs in Southeast Asia, the most famous example being Singaporean fish head curry. At first we worried that our choice was a dud. The waiter asked, “you know that’s a fish head?” But after noticing at least three other tables with the same red chile-and-scallion-smothered dish, we realized he was concerned about our non-Chinese palates (I really wanted to type palette to see if anyone would go apeshit on me).

Hunan house fish head remains

No worries, we picked the bones mostly clean, despite the fish head’s size (in Singapore you can specify if you want a small or large head) being better suited for more than two diners.

Hunan house water spinach

Ack, the stems (I completely had forgotten that I was aware of their existence and swore to never eat them). I could’ve sworn the menu simply read sautéed water spinach with green pepper, though the online version I’m currently looking at definitely says water spinach roots. Once again, I got tripped up by a Malay/Singaporean preparation of what they call kangkung. I was expecting leaves in chile sauce, not a whole platter of stems! I don’t want to make a big stink and go as far as saying I have a stem phobia (it’s like you’re being cute and drawing attention to quirks unnecessarily like in that Sloane Crosley story—a few months ago in an attempt to better myself and become more compassionate by reading things I assumed I would hate but that others love, I checked out her book from the library…and couldn’t get past the third story—where she claims to have a made-up disorder where she can’t read maps) but when I get a banh mi stuffed with more cilantro stems than leaves, I am not happy and if I make kangkung belacan, myself, I use leaves only. Stems go in the garbage, no matter how wasteful.

With all of that said, this dish that was far more challenging than a fish head, ended up being delicious. Light chile heat blended with the salty funk of black beans and hits of ginger and garlic.  I didn’t even miss the Sichuan peppercorns I had been craving at the start.

Hunan House * 137-40 Northern Blvd., Flushing, NY


A True Ice Cream Sandwich


Sandwiches. Are we tired of them yet? Things stuffed between bread seem to be getting an awful lot of attention lately. (Maybe I’m just cranky because I’ve been trying to limit my bread intake.) My attention did get grabbed by Saveur’s inclusion of my favorite non-savory sandwich that I’ve never actually eaten, the loti.

It’s one thing to plan a vacation to somewhere steamy and tropical. Looking at outdoor food photos, beforehand, running all over town tracking down never-seen-in-NYC delights sounds fun. In the swamp-like reality, if you pass a guy selling rainbow ice cream sandwiches and have the intention of returning later, you will not because a ten minute walk in 90-degree-humidity knocks the food blogger right out of you. Irrational decisions are made. Regrets are felt back in the relative cool comfort of a squashed A train.

Even if it’s just dyed white bread and ice cream, I love the looks of this treat. Please don’t take my artificial coloring away. Normally, it’s not open-faced topped with numerous scoops of ice cream like in the above photo, but served with the bread folded over a rectangular slab.

Photo credit: Todd Coleman/Saveur

We Can All Get Along in Cheddar Bay

Menu-lighthouse-callout The Atlanta Post, an African-American news site, attempts “Understanding Red Lobster’s Popularity Among Black Diners.” Dubious conclusion: blacks eat more fried fish than whites. Commenters not happy.

Somehow, not even at my suggestion, I ended up at a Red Lobster on Long Island the first weekend I moved to NYC, nearly 13 years ago. I (sometimes) hate perpetrating stereotypes, but yes, my group of four near-strangers was the only white party in the entire restaurant, a change for someone who had been living in the whitest city in America, days earlier. I figured that was just New York, not Red Lobster, specifically. I didn't know about the allure of fried fish.

Nearly unrelated: it always weirds me out how in Singapore they use the terms Jap food and Jap restaurant innocently.

Not Cutting the Mustard

As far as recent food-related Onion articles go, Continued Existence Of Edible Arrangements Disproves Central Tenets Of Capitalism totally wins (I have actually tasted one of these melon-filled bouquets, which was not sent to me, thankfully). I was also feeling Man On Internet Almost Falls Into World of DIY Mustard Enthusiasts until I got half-way down the page…and palate abuse!

Over the next few weeks, Gibson broadened his palette with many new and "exciting" mustards, an experiment that soon led him down a path toward compulsive mustard connoisseurship.

Maybe the author was hopped up on Noyo Reserve’s Merlot 'n Chocolate Mustard while writing this piece. I want to be forgiving.

Eaten, Barely Blogged: A Week of Fry-Days

Sel de Mer: Brooklyn Star is only a block or so from where I had gotten my haircut, but pig’s tails, sweetbreads and tripe chili didn’t mesh with the meatless Friday season I’m not taking part in but sympathetic to. Traif’s bacon doughnuts have been on radar sine I first heard about them, but no. We’d already missed Maison Premiere’s happy hour, so another time. I figured restaurants near the Graham stop would be safer on a Friday night, which wasn’t true at all. After 25 minutes or so at Mother’s across the street, a table was ready. Four oysters (I’ve already forgotten which west coasts and which east coasts were being served) and simple moules marinière and frites were eventually consumed.

Carroll Gardens Classic Diner: First, I realized that I eat at pubs way more than I had thought. Now, I’ve gone and patronized a diner twice in two weeks where if asked, I would estimate I eat a diner maybe one-to-two times a year maximum. This was far from my first choice, but the pickings are extremely slim at 3am in the Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill/Boerum Hill area (BoCoCa really does save typing, but ugh). Bar Tabac was winding down and Domino’s and this 24-hour diner were it. After seeing a 10:20pm showing of Win Win, I checked out newish beer bar, Local 61 and sadly, they stop serving food at 11pm, so I just got drunker and hungrier and ended up eating fries (semi-steak fries, no less) for the second time in two nights (I would eat fries every night—the only thing stopping me is my stern, rational brain that becomes more permissive after a few drinks). The last, and only other time, I’ve eaten at this diner I was dismayed by my monte cristo being served open-faced and assumed it was peculiar to this sandwich that’s always mangled in NYC. This time, I ordered a reuben…and same thing! Two slices of rye side-by-side, topped with sauerkraut, pastrami and a broiled skin of swiss cheese encasing the whole sprawling affair, thousand island dressing served on the side. I like my sandwiches assembled.

Waterfalls: I never see this Atlantic Avenue restaurant that I think is Syrian (despite the generic Middle Eastern qualifier) crowded. We were the only diners after work on a Thursday, though the woman at the cash register answered the phone steadily and the delivery guy was getting a workout. Mouhamarah, the red pepper and ground walnut dip, to start and Lamb schawarma platter with babaghanouj, rice and salad and warm pita that’s practically pizza-sized. They also serve pizza but do not call it pitza like at Zaytoons.