Skip to content

Archive for

Not Quite a Three Martini Lunch


My day finally came.

Also, I accidentally discovered a way to get drunk while sitting at my desk in the office drinking no alcohol.

I knew it was only a matter of time before my favorite all-purpose grocery store, Western Beef, started carrying Greek yogurt. Their slogan “We Know the Neighborhood” has meant that their flagship on the Brooklyn-Queens border sells a variety of Central American cheeses and crema, Serbian seasoning packets, Polish seltzer and (look, no serial comma—ok, I’m the only person alive who never used them in the first place and I’m feeling insecure about it) and has an entire wall devoted to Malta, the devil’s beverage, which is essentially non-fermented beer that’s drunk like a soda pop (pronounce that like sody pop).

Now, knowing nearby neighborhood, Bushwick, apparently means that in addition to Chobani and Oikos appearing out of nowhere, there is an entire new section by the fish counter devoted to organic goods. The yogurt I had expected, but never the full jump to Annie’s and Amy’s.

I have mixed feelings. It didn’t occur to me how wrong this new mainstream love of fancy yogurt could go. Rossman Farms, the cheap produce store under the BQE, a.k.a. porn alley, has sold Fage for some time despite being a bare bones vendor. No longer. Last week my thick yogurt of choice had been replaced by Chobani. In this cramped city, stores with a dearth of shelf and fridge space really only have room for one brand of each item. And it seems that Chobani has become the leader. This monopoly is bothersome.

I’m not even passionate about yogurt. It’s just something non-offensive and filling that I can eat between the time when my lunch wears off and I go to the gym straight from work. And I like being able control the amount of sweetness and what toppings I choose to use. I don’t need all those flavors and I don’t want 0% fat. Rossman Farms was not selling plain, only the fruit on the bottom fat-free varieties. What’s wrong with 2% fat? The real treat was that mysterious 5% Fage used to (still does?) make that had fewer calories than the 2%, a trick achieved by shaving 50 grams from the serving size.

But I bought Chobani at both Western Beef and Rossman Farms because it’s better than the cheaper, watery fructose crap that poses as yogurt. Despite loving all the off brands at WB, I just can’t deal with Tropical yogurt (though I’ll eat their cheddar).

The thing is, Chobani has caused me grief in the past beyond the already present fruit and lack of fat. When I bought a case at Costco (BJ’s sells Fage, but with honey only) as a test, two containers turned out to be moldy. And there’s that little fermentation problem. Once, I encountered a fizzy specimen. It didn’t smell rotten, but clearly something wasn’t right about the bubbly, carbonated texture. I took a bite—no, not moldy, just effervescent—but I still tossed it out.

This week, I heard a pop in my lunch bag and figured it was the pineapple somehow escaping the plastic container I had put the slices in. When I took a peek later, I realized the foil top on the yogurt had burst and I had another fermented cup on my hands. What the hell? This time, though, I ate it because I had nothing else to eat and I hate wasting food. And while the sensation in my mouth was weird, the raspberry flavor hadn’t been tainted.

The curious thing was that about one-third of the way through, I started feeling unusually relaxed, my arms and legs un-tensed and I stopped paying attention to what I was working on (ok, I’m never able to pay much attention). My mood perked up. Hey, I was tipsy. My yogurt had somehow fermented into an alcoholic sludge. Is this even possible?

I guess Chobani is good for something, after all.


Egg Foo Young Makes the World Go Round

Meimei restaurante chino

“Dai Sonxian soon discovered that Libyan women were far larger than the women she dressed in China. So she decided the family would instead profit by feeding them.

Now that’s entrepreneurial. I’ve always been fascinated by the ubiquity of Chinese restaurants around the world, particularly in cities with few fellow countrymen.

I’ve never been in a non-Asian foreign place long enough to justify eating at a Chinese restaurant (though I did eat sushi in Mexico City, not really on purpose) but I’ve definitely seen a few examples in Latin America and Spain. I spotted Meimei recently in Pamplona and Nuevo Siglo was on the same block as my apartment in San Sebastian. The menus at both seemed very Cantonese and not wildly different from what you’d find at an Americanized Chinese restaurant

Nearly every time we’d walk past at night, one of the worker’s daughters would be out fooling around on the delivery motorcycle totally asking for trouble. Sure enough, one time she fell off and the bike toppled over on her and she started yelling “¡Ayúdeme.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a small Chinese kid speaking Spanish before. And yes, James helped her up.

Bombs be damned, al-Maida, the Chinese restaurant in Tripoli featured in the above-mentioned Washington Post article, has a fourquare mayor.

And in Kabul you can play with guns and kittens at Chinese resturant, The Golden Key.

Chain Links: There’s the Beef

Front Brusque Coney Island customers are making young Beijing recruits  at Nathan’s cry.

Wendy's showed up in Moscow with "sexy" girls in pigtails and striped stockings. What would Dave Thomas think? Times have changed since Wendy's was able to use Soviet fashion as a gag.

The Ivy, London’s celebrity-clogged restaurant, recently opened a branch in Dubai. In a mall, of course. Will there be Dover sole? Yes, for 180 AED (approximately $49) which isn’t a horrible deal by NYC standards.

IHOP will be spreading throughout the Middle East. It just won't be the same without bacon and breakfast sausage.

MOS Burger’s test run in Brisbane has gone so well that the Japanese company thinks it can expand into the US, Canada and Europe. Do keep in mind that Hawaii has already seen MOS Burger come and go.

Carl’s Jr. is now in Canada.

Photo: Igor Tabakov/Moscow Times


Saucy balls In a round-up about the best NYC restaurants for a marriage proposal, you know there will be cloches, champagne flutes and crème brulee employed. It couldn’t be any other way.

My favorite of the 12 is the guy who had The Meatball shop stuff a ring inside of a meatball destined for delivery. Because meatballs are kind of gross (I know, I know, everyone loves meatballs) like a wad of saucy meatloaf (yes, everyone loves meatloaf, too). It would only be improved by stashing jewels in pile of Manwich.

Because I am half-robot, crying at wedding proposals is no more a reasonable response than emotional stress leading to regurgitating the contents of your stomach. Therefore, my least favorite example while the most elaborate, is Eleven Madison Park presenting a cloche with the ring to the gentleman and one hiding tissues for the lady. I am, however, closer to understanding the barfing thing.

Photo from Dining@Large

Bowled Over

Me bread bowl

When I mock/obsess over bread bowls, I’m speaking from experience. Yes, I’m showing my age…age 14 to be exact. While recently pawing through a tiny box of old photos, I discovered this gem capturing a Christmas Eve dinner from 1986. Ignore my hair (and dad and grandpa–I always want to type grandfather because it sounds better but that word has never come out of my mouth) and focus on the hollowed-out sourdough loaf abutting a red Jello salad. This delicacy filled with spinach dip made from one of those dressing packets mixed with mayonnaise was my aunt Kim’s specialty. The bread guts, meant to be dipped back into their former host, appear to be sitting on a metal baking dish in the background.

So, can I pen one of those ubiquitous getting in touch with my culinary roots essays now? If I only had another pic showing taco salad in a fried shell.

Mugaritz bread bowll

Sadly, I’ve come down off of my San Sebastián high, but I pepped right back up after seeing this artichoke and bone marrow course at Mugaritz served to the author of the blog, blank palate. I would’ve literally (no metaphors here) shit myself if presented with a bread bowl during my lunch there.

Mugaritz bread bowl photo from blank palate

Striking the Balance Between Fancy and Too Fancy

Locations_dallas Rich, or rather diners that still have jobs, are being wooed by Adirondack chairs and ship lanterns in Red Lobster’s remodeling endeavor. It hasn’t worked on me yet. I may fall into the disposable income for dining camp, but I must admit my attention was grabbed harder by the chain’s by four courses for $15 promo than attempts at creating a new look. I mean, really, I could practically spend that on a sandwich at lunch (I wouldn’t, because I’m cheap). At least I have the choice, though; households earning less than $40,000, so-called "aspirational diners," aren't buying lobster dinners like they used to.

Who knew that when I randomly decided to visit a part of New Jersey I’d never explored and pulled over at a Texas Roadhouse , that I was fitting right into the CEO CG Hart’s vision for an expanding demographic. No, I am not a “blue-collar worker” and yes, we ordered “higher-priced steaks!” If the chain wants to appeal to this undefined “higher income” group, they probably should have the servers stop asking if you’ve eaten a rib-eye before. That’s just weird. And serve skin-on bone-in chicken instead of breast meat. Rich people like that (ok, they don’t—too much flavor).

Showing some chain ignorance, I always thought Grand Lux Café was the lower end Cheesecake Factory so I never wanted to go (only the best for me!).Yes, I know, grand and lux are word clues. I’ve steered clear of the one in Paramus and wasn’t tempted by the original in The Venetian over New Year’s Eve. And apparently, no one else has been going because the restaurant is perceived as being too damn fancy. Downscaling is in order. Throw out the Adirondack chairs, stat!

Cheesecake Factory CEO, David Overton told The Wall Street Journal that he’s making the "decor less formal and fancy," so as the newspaper puts it, “not to intimidate the average suburban family who wanders in after a trip to the mall on a weekday night.”

Not sure if I’d use the term intimidated to describe my reaction to the “elaborate design, sumptuous fabrics and textures, and custom artisan-created details…awash in a color scheme reminiscent of a Venetian carnival,” explained on Grand Lux’s site. It might be safer to say a little frightened.

Chain Links: Pizza Pizza Pizza

Saudi dq
If you need any further evidence of NYC’s third world-ness, witness the brand new two-story Dairy Queen in Saudi Arabia. How can the Middle East have the largest DQ in the world (with two more locations on the way) when we live Blizzard-free here?

If Subway can do it, why not Quiznos? The sandwichery will be moving into Brazil, India and Kuwait this year and has its eye on more than 40 other countries.

Domino’s isn’t doing so well in China because it’s not a country of cheese-lovers.

It’s hard to believe that Yum! Brands, parent to Pizza Hut and KFC, hasn’t ventured into Argentina yet. Based on my experience at Guerrin, porteños are the opposite of the Chinese. No amount of cheese is enough.

More pizza. California Pizza Kitchen broke out of its Golden State confines long ago, and Taiwan is the chain’s latest geographic target. China already has CPK, and cheese-wary or not, they do have many pizzas we don’t. Red curry duck?  Roast duck? I want the pork belly with mustard greens and cilantro.

Because the British vacation in Florida so much, Pollo Tropical might just succeed in the UK.

Kuwait’s first Pinberry has become “the number one Pinkberry in the world.

International Palate Abuse

Spain with love

I’m happy to see there is a travel/food show about Spain (I don’t really count that Batali/Paltrow thing) and one that fittingly kicked-off with an episode about the Basque country. Mugaritz and Arzak, representing, of course.

But From Spain With Love had to go and rile me up by abusing palate in a subtitle translation. I’m admittedly horrible at understanding conversational-speed Spanish, so I replayed this scene at least ten times straining to hear either paladar (palate) or paleta (palette) and didn’t catch either, just blah blah, memories, dishes, blah, blah familiar flavors. I'll get over this one. My Spanish grammar is shit too.

It’s very strange how the word palate works its way into so many parts of my day, though. While reading two disparate blog posts within ten minutes of each other–one from Grub Grade about the new Wendy’s Berry Almond Chicken Salad, and the other on Diner’s Journal about Masa’s lost fourth star—two commenters on each site misused palate while criticizing the author’s word usage.

The Grub Grade commenter said that “mouthfeel” makes him cringe and then went on to say “you have quite an educated palete my friend.” Kind of minor in the scheme of things. It’s a $6.49 salad (which was causing nearly as much sticker shock as Masa's $450 prix fixe).

However, the Diner’s Journal example was egregious.

Oh, and next food reviewer to use the word "unctuous" when describing eel or sea urchin must stand in the middle of Times Square when it hits 114 degrees outside, with a begging cup and a sandwich board that says "Will Write for Thesaurus." Sea urchin and eel are creamy, funky, melty, smooth on the palette, etc etc etc. There, I just saved you.

PALATE. There, saved you.

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Seeing Double

Two shrimp

FOUR at YOTEL: I don’t know that I’m the target market for clubby far West Side hotel bars with amazing terraces (and a Yobot) but the cocktails and chef Richard Sandoval’s small Asian-Latino plates were fun (and gratis, it must be mentioned). See the  full set of photos. The tiny crunchy shrimp coated in a lemon sake aioli, stood out in particular because they reminded me of a more refined version of Bonefish Grill’s signature Sriricha-mayonnaise-sauced Bang Bang Shrimp. That is not an insult because I happen to love Bonefish Grill (see below). Superficially, I also enjoyed the tuna causa because it sat atop a rectangular mound of purple potato that resembled clay, and I love blue and purple food.

Tacos Nuevo Mexico: The Park Slope branch has been remolded for some time now. It’s all well and good, but the English-only menu poses problems. I fear being pretentious by asking for my tacos by their Spanish names, yet when I want carnitas, I’m unsure if that’s the listed roast pork, grilled pork or spicy pork. I’m guessing grilled pork, though I’m not taking any chances. Why we don’t have real tacos, even gentrified Mexican-produced tacos, in Carroll Gardens is a question I’ve had for seven years. A live guitar-playing duet, not really mariachis exactly, gave way to piped-in Credence Clearwater Revival’s greatest hits.

Blueberry cocktails

Bonefish Grill: If asked (I never am) I would likely say that this seafood restaurant is my favorite chain. And I just realized that I only gave it a half-review back in 2007–that needs to be rectified, um, because I've been many times since. Even though it’s in the same Iselin, New Jersey parking lot as the renovated Red Lobster and I am truly curious about the more established chain’s current four courses for $15 deal (really, how do they do it?) and unlimited Cheddar Bay Biscuits, I still went with Bonefish. It gives the illusion of being upscale, at least in comparison to Red Lobster. Martinis with blue cheese-stuffed olives are only $6.90, entrees like my soft-shell crab stuffed with a crab cake are in the teens and you can choose healthy sides like the simple green beans and sautéed zucchini, as I did. Instead of our usual appetizer order, yes, the above-mentioned Bang Bang Shrimp we had ceviche and wagyu beef dumplings instead because we’d just eaten a Manhattan-ized version of the prawn dish three night’s previously. Also of note, FOUR was serving a blueberry shiso caipirinha while Bonefish had a blueberry martini. Blueberry is in season in both the suburbs and the city. I preferred the caipirinha–while I love chain restaurants, their cocktails are always too sweet for my taste.

Der Kommissar: No Falco was played, but Sheila E., Prince and Michael Jackson did their ‘80s duty. Normally, I wouldn’t be in South Slope twice in a weekend, but there was a new condo I wanted to take a peek at on 15th Street. The building didn’t do much for me, but a glass of Ramstein Double Platinum Blonde and a pretzel, more like a mini baguette, with a blue cheese, dried cherry and walnut spread (not particularly Austrian—but they hadn’t made the liptauer yet) made for a fine Sunday afternoon pit stop.


I briefly chatted with Elena Arzak as she said goodbyes to groups of lunchers slowly trickling out the door in time for what would be American dinner. When Mugaritz invariably came up (I imagine at least 80% of foreign Arzak customers likely dined at both in quick succession) she said something curious: “They’re French.” Obviously chef Andoni Luis Aduriz is not, so she must’ve meant the food. In turn, that would imply that Arzak is more Spanish. Or should I say Basque?

As a librarian by training, I enjoy categorizing things and what designation to give these topsy-turvy restaurants is problematic in the same way that food cooked by Indians in Singapore but not necessarily found in India, confounds me. Not to eat, but to designate in tidy checkboxes.

Initially I might’ve said Arzak and Mugartiz were both Spanish because they’re in Spain. But this is Basque country. But are their ingredients overtly Basque? Kokoxtas are used at Mugaritz to non-traditional effect. Green tea, yuca and huitalacoche are used at Arzak.

Arzak facade

Arzak, unassuming in the same residential part of San Sebastián since 1897, lacks lush grounds, livestock or herb gardens to ogle. The restaurant is being run simultaneously by the third and fourth generations and is firmly entrenched as a local restaurant. It’s unquestionably Basque—at least in spirit.

Arzak amuses
All of the amuses, plus the corn soup with figs and morcilla, arrived at once. (I tried not to go overboard with the individual glamour shots and just focus on tasting the food. If anything, note-taking is more useful than photo-snapping because a month later I only have fleeting memories of how things tasted.) You must be quick with that camera or you’ll miss the dramatic dry ice effect created when tea is poured around the sweet-salty ham and tomato balls. On the left is a puffed yellow rice filled with a wild mushroom mousse. Displayed on the spindles are nuggets of kaitaifi-wrapped kabrarroka (this translates to scorpion fish, but I think is similar to hake) paste. I noticed the crisped vermicelli being used on at least one pintxo, maybe at Zeruko. Strawberry halves topped with rolled sardines was the most unusual combination, though the oil and sweetness worked. Fruit and fish can be friends—or at least acquaintances.

I decided on a Bierzo wine because…frankly, I’m more knowledgable about food than wine and yes, Michelin starred restaurants in Spain are where you can totally dork out on Riojas, but I didn’t want to misstep with a pricey bottle. Bierzo is more of an up-and-comer in the US, fairly inexpensive and perhaps more versatile for a tasting menu since Mencia grapes are lighter than Tempranillo or Garnacha. Plus, I recognized Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos del Bierzo as being a forgotten wine on my to-try list from a few years ago. Bizarrely, this exact bottle was called out in a Food & Wine article about Pinot Noir alternatives I just found at the gym. The only odd thing was that on the menu it was listed as 2007 and I was brought a 2008. The presenting and tasting of the wine is usually uneventful and I’ve always secretly wished I had something more to say during the ritual. And yet I didn’t make any mention of the bottle discrepancy; it just didn’t seem worth it with the language barrier and price point (this is like a $22 wine in NYC—I think it was marked up to 40 euros at Arzak). How different could the two years really be?

Unless you ask a million questions or are privy to behind-the-scenes looks at the involved food preparation, you will never know how complex a dish is based on menu description, and not likely through taste either unless you’re a total pro.

I’m not a sensual eater (and generally hate the word sensual). I like a dish more after I understand what has gone into it, but I don’t think anyone should have to know the 20 steps and ingredients incorporated to enjoy a meal. It should work both ways even if peeks into the process add meaning.

Arzak cromlech y cebolla con té y café
Last weekend I watched the new Cooking Channel show with the dopey title, From Spain With Love, and the host was shown by the Arzaks how this dish, cromlech y cebolla con te y café, was made. Me, I only knew that onion, tea and coffee were ingredients based on the description. Now I know that the shells are made from dough of yuca and huitalacoche that puffs when fried. The foie gras nugget that sits inside was detectable when eaten—you’re instructed to quickly flip them over as not to lose the filling from the open base and eat the creation out of hand—but I missed the green tea nuance that I now know is there.

So not Basque in flavors, but completely so in conception. A cromlech, as I neither learned from TV nor from description but from the internet, is an ancient circle of burial stones. Grave markers on a plate, essentially. More morbid than playful? I thought they resembled the freakish looking Dumbo octopus.

Arzak bogavante coralino

Bogavante coralino was significant for its use of kaolin, the clay I’d also seen used at Mugaritz. I want to say that the stiff, chalky smudges were green from chlorophyll, but I can’t find any evidence of that. The sesame crisps, soft lobster meat and onion crunch provided much contrasting textures.

Arzak side salad
Many of the courses, as well as the desserts, came with little sides. I didn’t keep track of all of them, but these greens that sat atop tapioca pearls, accompanied the lobster.
Arzak mejillón y huevo espolvoreado

Mejillon y huevo espolvoreado. I completely forgot about this course. The yolk was not a yolk but an orange jellied disk made from mussels. Sometimes I think you’d need to eat each dish at least twice on separate occasions to get a true feel for them.

Arzak rape marea baja
For the fish course, I chose rape marea baja because I’d loved photos I’d seen of the monkfish paired with tropical shades and crystalline blue stars flavored of curacao. I will always order the blue thing. The flavors were very light, though, some shells mildly fishy, others sweet. The coral was tempuraed seaweed (and I was given more shells and coral on the side). I wouldn’t have noticed how light if we hadn’t swapped plates half-way through and I noticed how much more distinctive the sole was.

Arzak lenguado con mamia
Lenguado con mamia
, paired with an orange sauce and sweet red wine soaked croutons had more punch. I’m assuming the head cheese was the thin, meaty strip hidden beneath the pool of sauce. Mamia is a curded dessert, which I’m guessing (always with the guessing—I take back any earlier hesitation; this food is super Basque, at least in a way that could only make total sense if you were familiar with the original) is the thick white topping on the sole. Maybe I just liked this dish because of the sweetness; their penchant for seafood and sweeter accompaniments was new to me.

Arzak cordero con romero y curcuma con salsa
The meats, while delicately portioned, had heft. I picked the cordero con romero y curcuma. Despite the flourishes—flower petals, of course—and rosemary infused oil with red pepper sheet, this was not a wildly untraditional lamb dish, but a very good one.

Arzak jamón y esparrago
Its side was white asparagus stubs wrapped in jamon and served as tempura.

Arzak pichón asado con maíz y flor de azaha
Pichón asado con maíz y flor de azaha. The pigeon with corn and orange blossom was nearly as good. Black olives and cucumbers rounded out the flavors.

Arzak side
A side salad with a little pigeon leg.

Arzak sopa y chocolate entre viñedos
We said yes when asked if we liked chocolate. I don’t know what happens if you say you don’t. I suppose you’re not served the sopa y chocolate entre viñedos, a wavy bowl containing a shallow pool of strawberry soup occupied by shiny grape-like blobs filled with chocolate. An even bigger sphere of basil ice cream lies half-submerged in the pink liquid. More ice cream, I want to say chocolate, was served in the square dish.

Arzak jugando a las canicas de chocolate
Jugando a las canicas de chocolate
. More chocolate orbs, these more wizened and meatball-like in appearance. Or I should say marbles since the dish translates to “playing with chocolate marbles.” The side ice cream for this was dessert was tart, pink and dubbed “tutti frutti.” I might have guessed strawberry bubblegum.

Arzak fractal fluido
And one more. Hidromiel y fractal fluido starts with a dish of clear honeyed water. As red dye (made from vodka, carminc acid, sugar and water I discovered.  If you have free time on your hands, here’s the recipe. It’s a doozy.) is dripped onto the plate it blooms and zigzags like blood rushing into capillaries.

Arzak hidromiel y fractal fluido
The thin, lightly sweetened sauce is then spooned over chilled upright wedges of white chocolate-covered lemon ice cream.

Arzak piedra de pistachio y remolacha
Piedra de pistachio y remolacha
. Beets, pistachios and a spongy cake.

Arzak chocolates artesanos
As I mentioned in my impressions of Mugartiz, I thought it was interesting that both restaurants end with an allusion to tinkering. Mugaritz with chocolate nails poked into a flowery ice cream one, and at Arzak a full range of nuts, bolts and Lego-like cubes.

Arzak dining room

After saying goodbye, I started heading across the street to get a photo of the restaurant’s exterior despite its understated presence. When we got to the crosswalk, I realized Juan Mari Arzak was already there waiting for the light to change. I’m a horrible small-talker, and can barely make what even counts as small talk in Spanish (I’d already gathered from when the chef made the rounds during lunch that he didn’t really speak English—that’s more Elena’s role) but it’s weirder to not acknowledge the person who just spent hours in the kitchen preparing the special meal you just ate.

I did muster in my so-so Spanish, “Do you live nearby?” He said “yes” and pointed up the street. I’ve always envied people who can walk to work. Maybe my eyes showed the pain of 13 years of subway torment. I was half-concerned that the elder Arzak was afraid we were going to follow him home.

“Uh, ok, bye! We’re going this way.” I may be a poor conversationalist, but I’m totally not a chef-stalker.

Arzak * Alcade Jose Elosegui 273, Sebastián Spain