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Beating the Heat

I don't know that anyone would notice one way or the other, but I am in San Francisco (well, was over the weekend) and Portland this week and will be back to posting some time soon.

So far: Bar Agricole, Benu, Bar Tartine, Lers Ros, Oakland taco trucks, Flora and Le Pigeon.

Coming up: Pok Pok, Char Burger, Paley's Place, Castagna, Tasty n Sons…and more.

Who knows if I'll write about it all.

Better Than Lobster Rolls

Yellow lobster

Wow, a yellow lobster just showed up at Wegmans, my favorite East Coast suburban grocery store (I know you didn’t ask).


Impressive, but I still prefer the blue one recently caught off the coast of Prince Edward Island.

I am holding out for a green specimen…because it's my favorite color (who cares if no one's asking).

Previously on blue lobsters.

Photos: Wegmans Pittsford, Karen George

Sa Aming Nayon

Now Jeepney. At least it's still Filipino, right? Gastropub or not. I walked past the opening last night and was tempted to pop in. (10/12/12)

Curiously, Sa Aming Nayon appeared in that patch of First Avenue near 14th Street that periodically sprouts and snuffs out Filipino restaurants back in June. Yet their name has been popping up in the past week in food media. Well, just Time Out New York and Tasting Table. Why now?

Who cares, all you need to know is that if you have even the vaguest interest in Filipino food—and you should—this home-style restaurant is worth a visit. Then again, I’m a big booster of Filipino cuisine. It’s an unknown compared to more popular Thai or Vietnamese, and those who encounter the style, reliant on vinegar and other bitter flavors, often write off the entire country’s repertoire. Some think it’s too funky; others find it boiled and bland.

Sa aming nayon lechon kawali

While lamb and goat battle for it meat recognition, pork is still the favorite protein of discerning gluttons everywhere. And no one does pork like a Pinoy. It’s a great introduction. The next best thing to experiencing the bounty of the whole beast, a.k.a. lechon, is sampling the fatty parts encased in crackly skin. This typically means crispy pata, a deep-fried ham hock or lechon kawali, pork belly given the same burnished-in-oil treatment.

Chicharrón is often eaten as is, but lechon kawali needs its sauce. I panicked for a second when it didn’t show up. “The sauce is coming,” I was promised before I could say a thing. Then I could hear the woman who appeared to be an owner yelling into the kitchen for “the sauce.” What if they were out of sauce? I’ve heard of women carrying Tabasco or ranch dressing in their purses. I wonder what they would’ve thought if I pulled a bottle of Mama Sita’s out of my bag.

I have no idea how you would come up with the idea of combining liver, sugar, vinegar and bread crumbs (thrifty, sure) to make a dip for fried pork, but the thick, sweet and savory result that’s more sludgy than saucy, transforms the meaty chunks into something even better. It’s instant umami.

Sa aming nayon pinakbet

Pinakbet combines a slew of vegetables like squash, tomatoes, bitter melon, eggplant and green beans with more pork to create a vegetable stew. Read more about this dish on the new Real Cheap Eats NYC (not so much because I’m plug-crazy but because I don’t want to repeat myself).

Sa aming nayon adobo

Classic soy-and-vinegar braised adobo is an obvious choice (they were out of sisig, which is what I really wanted) but I like that they served a version with both pork and chicken. The meat becomes so stained from the soy that you can barely tell which meat you’re getting until you take a bite. Adobo roulette.

I’d like to go back for the halo-halo. Icy Asian desserts, like snow cones covered in gelatinous goo, often seem odd out of context, but this heat wave is tailor made for tropical sweets, purple yam jam, pandan jelly and all.

Sa Aming Nayon * 201 First Ave., New York, NY

What Does Your Favorite Tapa Say About You?

Mini-burgers I couldn’t help but click into the press release, “Complimentary Breakfast and In-Room Coffee Service Sway Consumers' Hotel Selection, Says Technomic” because I wanted to see how I fit in with the surveyed consumers. You know, in a what your favorite movie dad says about you way (partial to Ghost Dad, myself).

The nicer the hotel, the less likely it will be that they provide an in-room coffee maker and I like my crappy, watery cup before heading out into the world for a real coffee and am too cheap to order room service. But going down to Holiday Express level just causes heartache because there’s no way in hell I’m going to wake up between 6am and 9m to take advantage of free scrambled eggs, bacon and rolls. That is not a perk.

I lost all concentration on the results of this study, though, when I saw “Bar lounges and lobbies are expanding their menus and offering more tapas-style foods to promote the lobby as a casual, social-gathering place.”

Tapas-style foods?! What does that even mean? I’m heading to San Francisco tomorrow and if I don’t see any goat cheese-stuffed meatballs in the lobby of Parc 55, my Priceline blind bid result, there is going to be hell to pay. (No in-room coffee maker, so it must be classy). Oh, the in-house restaurant, which may or may not be anywhere near the lobby appears to serve “bar bites” including potstickers, sliders and empanadas. American tapas, if I’ve ever seen them. Thankfully, they didn’t use the T word.

Palate/palette abuse is a fact of life—caring only causes pain—instead, tapas patrolling might be where it’s at.

When is a tapa not a tapa? Likely, if it involves marinara and melted mozzarella or is simply a mini-burger or tiny serving of babyback ribs. Is it Spanish? If no, then you must call it a small plate or give it some other vague nomenclature. I would not recommend appeteaser.

Photo credit: The Hip Hostess

Real Cheap Eats

Cheap eats means different things to different people. Some might call a shared $25 pizza cheap while others would consider a $20+ pie outrageous, no matter the pedigree. (I know, because a semi-old-timer Carroll Gardens resident told me she couldn’t believe neighborhood restaurants were charging $25 when she can get a pizza for $12.) But it’s pretty fair to say that less than $10 per dish constitutes cheap.

The $10 rule was applied to the new Real Cheap Eats, an online guide spearheaded by James Boo of The Eaten Path and created by a group of NYC-based food bloggers (including myself) to promote truly affordable dishes, many in less publicized locales. Yes, there is food beyond Manhattan and the northwestern corner of Brooklyn (and room for more to be added to the guide in the future).

Which reminds me that I need to spend more time exploring Staten Island. I pass through the underdog borough on my way to New Jersey at least once a month. There’s Italian, obviously, but they also have German and Sri Lankan restaurants, as well as a growing Mexican community.

Regional Food Representing

Toast box kaya toast
You would think that photos of the same dish, even from the same restaurant, would all blur together. Yet, I usually recognize mine when I see them (I easily spotted my bacon maple bar while scrolling through rss feeds). When poking around MyCityCuisine, a new wiki collecting dishes from all over the world, I immediately stumbled upon a familiar kaya toast pic. Of course, I went straight to Singapore first.

I’ve been on a big Filipino food kick lately so I went to the Manila page and learned about champorado, which I thought was only a Mexican thing.

It’s a useful site and should get better the more that people contribute. If anything, the US section could use some beefing up. There are only ten cities listed so far and Madison, Wisconsin is kicking the rest of the country’s ass with all sorts of regional oddities. Booyah? I would add something for Portland, Oregon, but all I can think of is jo jo potatoes.

Eastern Shore…and More

Sure, all-you-can-eat crabs at Clemente’s is fun, if not unique in Brooklyn, but Maryland’s Eastern Shore it is not.

I spent the weekend leading up to Fourth of July in Kent Narrows, a little sliver on the Chesapeake between Annapolis and…I don’t really know what’s on the eastern side that’s too northwestern to be the more popular Rehoboth Beach or Ocean City. (I’m a west coaster, sorry.)

Crab deck front

You can get crabs at a number of restaurants in the area. I only acquiesced to the Crab Deck because it was James’ pick and he had been there many times before with his parents. Not that his family is neccessarily crab experts.

Crab deck dozen

Even closer to their home, crabs don’t come cheap. They are bigger than the blue crabs you often see here, though, and a dozen of larges split between two with a pitcher of beer is a feast. This Old Bay-encrusted pile will set you back about $65. James thought they were kind of small for larges, though they seemed ok to me. Jumbos are decadent. They didn't have Extra Larges.

Crab deck hushpuppies

Hushpuppies are the only accompaniment you need.

Crab deck patio

You can feed any leftovers to the plump ducks that hang out on the deck looking for scraps.

Crab deck bar

You can also have a drink at the bar while listening to John Cougar played by DJ Ritchie Lionel.

Big owl tiki

Big Owl Tiki Bar down the way made me feel young, pale and non-leathery. ‘70s music ruled. Whenever I drink out outside of NYC, I am reminded that people over 40 like to have a good time in public with alcohol. I’ve always attributed their absence here to delayed procreation (and that any female over 28 is made to feel old at most Brooklyn bars). Forties are prime child rearing years in the city where in other locales that’s the start of empty nesting. They’ve done their time; now they’re having fun.

Harris crab house facade

Harris Crab House does big business with busloads of tourists. I had to stand in this spot for some time to wait for them to pull away from the front of the restaurant (they were also blocking in our car).

Harris crab house soft crab sandwich

I just had a soft shell, or soft crab as they call them, sandwich since I’d just eaten six hard shells the night before.

Harris clams & beer

Once again showing my local ignorance, I thought soft shell clams would be the equivalent of soft shell, pardon, soft crabs, but they are the same thing as steamers and are called soft shell to distinguish them from the harder quahogs. On a fried bender here. And beer for breakfast.

The narrows facade

The Narrows is a little bit fancier, with tablecloths and grilled fish instead of brown paper and wooden mallets. It was also the scene of my first semi-in-restaurant marriage proposal. A boat slowly bobbed past the back picture windows while its inhabitants held a banner reading “Will you marry me?” If a situation ever called for a battered, fried ring, this would be it…but no.

Narrows crab dishes

Crab two more ways: in a dip (with Virginia ham—so local) and in a cake.

We then headed to the big city, influenced by the commercial loop on the Holiday Inn’s TV advertising mostly Annapolis restaurants over and over again. I watched the damn thing at least five times. Level was not part of the promotional show, but small plates (thankfully, they did not call them tapas) and mixology? Maybe.Why not take a break from beer in plastic cups and crustaceans?

As suspected, it was a little dude bro. This wasn’t a handlebar moustache establishment, more like fitted t-shirts and leather strap necklaces. Even so, not everyone was down with the concept. Two women out on the town, probably my age, which is to say older than 30 but not quite 40, sat at the bar on the opposite side of the corner and were asking about wine. The bartender suggested a pinot noir. One of the women firmly said, “no” and when the bartender left them with the menu she said loud enough that I could hear, but not that he could, “what a dipshit” and they stormed off. Total mismanaged expectations. Ladies wanted a richer oenophilic experience and dude just wanted to geek out on homemade bitters. It's a tough crowd in the big city.

Level cocktails

I wouldn’t exactly call the cocktails seasonal. My State Street Manhattan (maple cured old forester, cinnamon vermouth, apple bitters) was pure autumn. The Aviator (blue coat gin, maraschino, HUM liqueur, grapefruit juice) was a little brighter. The Smoked Margarita (hickory and lavender smoked herradura, lime, agave, smoked salt) was my favorite; summer but tweaked.
Level small plates

Grilled eggplant, ribs and lamb sausage with spaetzle (ok, more fall flavors).

Creamsicle Back to Kent Narrows, afterward. I’m still mildly traumatized by Red Eye’s Dock Bar, where I managed to talk the guards down to two for $5 instead of $10 to be in the thick of dancing wedding parties and a huge stage with a cover band belting out Warrant and Ozzy.

I was taken with a particular large, spiky bleach blonde, cartoonishly made up  wild woman, a biological woman, not a John Waters character as I had originally thought, who was picking fights with everyone and offered me a Mento from a roll she’d been hiding very successfully in her cleavage. She wrote down the recipe for a Creamsicle, the drink she’d been ordering all night.

I sympathized with her chaperone, a sane woman, her Facebook friend who never gets to go out, who couldn’t have been over 30, divorced with two grade school-aged kids with special needs. She told me how lucky I was not to be married or have children and seemed surprised that I’d come all the way from New York City to hang out at Red Eye’s. No obligations, that's me. But when she’s 40, maybe she’ll be free again? Right? Say yes, or I'm going to feel bad.

Crab deck signage

When Pinot Grigio Won’t Cut It

Ladies_Night_Duo What I’ve passively discovered about the state of alcoholic beverages geared towards women while skimming my rss feeds in the hour and 40 minutes that I have been awake this morning .

In Britain, only 17% of beer consumption is attributed to ladies compared to one-quarter in the US. To rectify this, Molson Coors is introducing a less gassy beer called Animee that will come in citrus and rose flavors.

Qream, a low-lactose liqueur created by Pharrell, won’t make you fat–just royal and creamy, I guess?

Cupcake-flavored vodka, not only exists, it has won awards.

Morton's is promoting low-calorie Spa-Tinis with names like Skynny Blood Orange Cosmo,  Skinny Rita,  Lean and Green, Antioxidant Me and Red Velvet.

Bar Basque & Txikito

Ever since experiencing Basque food in its own element, I have become insufferable. Ok, not really, but I have wondered why there aren’t real pintxo bars in New York City when we have so many other niche culinary ventures. I’m envisioning a counter teeming with trays of small, high quality, totally creative, reasonably priced ($3 short pours of txakoli, not $12 like I experienced this weekend and $5 plates, not double digits) gems to be consumed while standing or on stools at a bar. It’s so crying out for a Brooklyn treatment. Could you street-food-ize it or make it pop-up?

If I were the opposite of me, I would make this happen despite my complete lack of business sense, industry experience and capitol. Like this is the part of the T Magazine or New York profile where the subject says, “I liked kombucha…so I started a kombucha company” or “I loved s’mores as a kid…so I’m now producing artisanal graham crackers. It’s a full time job.”  Uh huh. Myself, I’ve wanted to start a category (tumblrs just don’t do it for me) A to C, documenting these inexplicable journeys from idea to execution.

There are factors holding back pintxos bars in NYC: price, as I already mentioned, and the bar thing. Americans like to sit down and stay in one place when eating a meal and you couldn’t have a crawl anyway without a concentration of options in the same area. One destination pintxos place wouldn’t cut it.

This week I tried two extremes: Bar Basque (comped, I must point out) and Txikito (on my own dime—the difference between the two meals was almost exactly $100 on the nose, though mostly because I tried far fewer things at the latter not because the quainter restaurant is bargain-priced) to see the state of Basque cooking in the city.

Bar basque hall Bar Basque is just as bombastic as one may expect from a Chodorow production. The relentlessly red panels, ticker tape blue digital squiggles racing along the surface, and wall of windows open to a giant outdoor movie screen is like a lounge in an Asian capital that has a tough door policy for locals while letting in all Westerners even if they’re clad in Old Navy. When people said, the décor is like Blade Runner, I thought they meant that metaphorically, but Syd Mead, Bar Basque’s designer really did have a hand in that movie’s sets. It was jarring to see Annie Hall, a film only five years older than the sci-fi classic, playing on the screen visible from most tables. 1977 Manhattan contrasted with 2011’s interpretation of cinematic 2019.

All the show might give the impression that eating was secondary, yet the food is quite good. Spanish ingredients abound—you will get your Idiazábal, jamón and olive oil—while a whole series of seafood crudos and escabaches seem more like the product of chef Yuhi Fujinaga’s imagination. There is not a lot of raw fish traditionally eaten in Spain.


Bar basque gin & tonics

While light and effervescent txakoli is the wine most associated with the Basque region, gin and tonics are also a Spanish favorite. (I drank them by the tumbler-full at Madrid’s deco Museo Chicote) The list of modernized variations, each paired with a unique brand of spirit, including the rosemary and chile with No. 209 Gin above, was clever. Cocktails and a few shared plates of food might be the best way to enjoy the restaurant, which doesn’t feel like the right venue for a drawn out multi-course meal.

Bar basque starters

Idiazábal croquetas and yellowfish tuna tartare “push pops” with red wine caviar.

Bar basque crudo

Of the lightly marinated items playfully presented in cans—Spain is the king of preservas; entire grocery aisles are devoted to canned mariscos—the mussels with pimento de la vera, onion, garlic and fennel were my favorite. The meaty blobs, hit with smoked paprika seemed right on and the crimson oil and caramelized aromatics left behind made the best bread dip. 

There was also Spanish mackerel with shallots, chiles and coriander seeds, octopus, black olives and tomato confit, and Yellowfin tuna with ajo blanco and chimichurri. The only dish that felt a little clunky were the sea scallops with Mediterranean flavors. On paper black olives and preserved lemon seemed fine, but the olive puree smudged on the plate (which I genuinely thought was refried beans) overwhelmed the raw seafood.

Bar basque mains

The smoked trout with jamon butter trumped the pudding-like pork belly with baby clams, if only because the fish had its crispy skin showcased.

The heirloom tomatoes with Pedro Jimenez sherry vinegar, were simple, greenmarket and somehow very American. I’ve been researching where to eat in San Francisco next week and this falls squarely under the hyphenated style they like to call Cal-Spanish. Everything gets the Cal prefix by using local produce and serving it simply.

Bar basque desserts

Leche frita with chocolate and passion fruit sauces and piña colada flan with caramelized pineapple.

Is it ok to admit that the real reason I wanted to go to Txikito was to see the adorable food wallpaper in the bathroom? I’m a sucker for design. Fewer than ten blocks from Bar Basque, the Chelsea restaurant is cute, rustic, woody, the dead opposite of the theatrics occurring adjacent to the Eventi Hotel. Then again, on my way out my exit was blocked by a white-haired gentleman demanding enthusiastically, “Give me the best seat in the house!” I thought that only happened in movies. Also, that’s not someone who would appreciate pintxo-hopping.

Txikito morcilla

Like most Spanish restaurants in the city, the offerings tend to be more like raciones than tapas. The morcilla, stuffed into wonton skins like spring rolls, is mild in its fried shell and on the tapas end of the scale. Little rich bites.

Txikito melted cheese

I was sitting at an odd angle from the blackboard, so I did not catch which mild, oozy cheese this was. Perked up by two anchovies and a bed of softened grilled red pepper strips, the fondue-style dish serve with bread was a little like Spanish queso, no Velveeta needed.

Txikito salad

Arugula hides the poached egg, the most important part of any such dish. The tiny, battered, fried fish covering the whole tufted affair added great texture and a hit of salt like barely fishy canned onions. Who would like to make a green bean casserole with these instead?

Txikito squid ribbons

Txipirones, a.k.a. squid, cut into ribbons and served with…what was described as pine nuts and sweet onions. I had been picturing a sweet-savory thing with raisins even though nothing really led me to believe there would be any chunky dried fruit. This was more creamy,  rich with concentrated natural sweetness from the onions, and the kind of topsy-turvy dish that wouldn't be wildly out of place in San Sebastián.

Salinas, Basque chef Luis Bollo's new restaurant, is also on my radar. Though when I see a restaurant running specials like Salinas did this morning with Gilt City, I now get suspicious thanks to The Bad Deal.

Bar Basque * 839 Sixth Ave., New York, NY
Txikito * 249 Ninth Ave., New York, NY

You Got Your Chocolate In My Peanut Butter

Images I don't actually eat a lot of junk food (no, that's not quite as egregious as saying you don't own a television) even though I'm a chain food freak. But I love the idea of snack food mash-ups. Humans are combining Cool Ranch Doritos with Table Talk pineapple pies on their own while brands like Planters are inventing Crème Brûlée Almonds.

Meanwhile, General Mills is stuffing food into other food turducken-style. Betty Crocker's FUN da-Middles, which allow home bakers to put the frosting inside cupcacakes, is but one example.

The only junk food pairing I can recall ever engaging in was a near-daily snack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Cherry Coke during second period study hall my freshman year. The combo tasted like eggnog, at least to my 14-year-old palate. I should give it another go. And yeah, I did put on weight that year. Thankfully, this was pre-obesity epidemic so no one gave a shit or tried removing me from my home.

Photo of Potato Plantain Torta ingredients from Junk Foodie