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Oft-mentioned 2011 places to eat that I could walk to and only feel semi-guilty for never having visited. 2012, maybe?

Bien Cuit
Court Street Grocers (ok, late 2010)
Smith Canteen
Smorgasburg (er, not really walkable but it was mentioned so much it felt nearby)

However, after 7.5 years in Carroll Gardens I finally did try Saul. It's a solid neighborhood restaurant, no flash, not crowding or waiting for tables, serving the local, seasonal food that's become standard practice in Brooklyn. I couldn't help but think of Saul when I read Adam Platt's revised list of 101 restaurants and he knocked The Grocery off with the comment, " Almost everything on Smith Street now seems old."  Fair enough, restaurants that aren't viewed as exciting anymore, but aren't venerable enough to transcend their comforting sameness  (is there a Brooklyn Le Grenouille?) are in danger.

I only had an appetizer and an entree because it felt more appropriate than a tasting menu (and diners who came in after we did, left well before, emphasizing the  casual drop-in for a bite vibe).

Saul sweetbreads

The green beans , corn and squash accompanying the fist-sized portion of sweetbreads almost felt summery.  The fat, creamy tan beans, though, added heft and texture that was similar to the organ meat's soft interior.

Saul squab & farro

Squab was served two ways: rare breast sliced and spindly legs that had been confited. Green faro added a nice chewiness, though with the brussels sprouts, potatoes, and cauliflower, the amount of grain overwhelmed a bit.

Saul pine nut tart

I wanted to try the signature baked Alaska because come on–how often do you get to eat a mound of ice cream frosted in burnished meringue peaks? I'd ordered heavier dishes than I'd realized, though, so went smaller…sort of smaller. The pine nut tart wasn't exactly light, but it satisfied a desire for a caramelly cold weather dessert.

Saul * 140 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY

Hofbräu Berlin

After reading about the Berlin arrival of Hofbräuhaus, a beer garden franchise from Munich that has outlets in Dubai and Las Vegas (maybe I’ll pop in this weekend), I knew I had to pay a visit. If only because Bavarian kitsch in the capital might be akin to a Cracker Barrel in Manhattan (no one seems to realize that you can reach the country chain if you head west for an hour–no need to cross the Mason-Dixon Line).

Hofbrauhaus berlin interior

The giant space designed to hold 2,500 wasn’t even close to capacity on a dark, blustery Friday afternoon, but there was an oompah band (they had just left the stage). We were the only ones who didn’t know the words to the songs.

The real reason I wanted to go to the Hofbräuhaus was because I needed a schweinshaxe fix. Berlin is known more for eisbein, a boiled pork knuckle, but I wanted a massive dose of lechon-like crispy skin and fat.

But I didn’t want to seem like a total glutton. Even though I knew I was ordering something embarrassingly massive, I played it off like I was a naive American unwittingly picking random things. And oddly, this was the only restaurant I dined at that didn’t have English menus or translations below dishes, and it was the most touristy place by far, right off Alexanderplatz, the metaphorical Time’s Square of Berlin.

Hofbrauhaus berlin pork shank

When it arrived and drew the attention of the neighboring group of German tourists who’d commandeered two big tables, I pretended like I was surprised. I may have even opened my eyes wider and held out my hands as if I were air-measuring the knuckle’s girth.

Of course, I couldn’t eat it all myself. There was no way the crackled hunk of meat was going to be to even be tackled fully by two people, and I didn’t get the impressions that Germans, like most Europeans, engaged in doggie bagging. We did the best we could. I have to tamp down my food-wasting guilt on vacations.

Hofbrauhaus berlin sausages

I did not order the sausages and potatoes.

Hofbräu Berlin * Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 30, Berlin, Germany

Beef Tongue Had a Very Good Year

Last year I embraced the ubiquitous year-end best of list without adding my own to the online clutter.

This year I present only a single micro-trend: fried, shredded beef tongue with flowers, a curiosity that I non-purposely encountered three times this year in three geographically diverse restaurants. It only leads me to believe that there must be many more renditions being executed around the globe.

Has anyone else had a run-in with flowery tongue?

Mugaritz shhh...muerdete la lengua

April 2011, Mugaritz, San Sebastian, Spain. "Shhh…muerdete la lengua," is all the menu gives away. You are brought the tangle of  mystery meat and asked to guess its origin after eating it. Despite the clue in the description , I would not have identified the crispy floss as tongue. This is the type of playfulness I would expect from an iconic Basque restaurant, and assumed it was a unique house creation.

Castagna summer squash with beef marrow, tongue, onion blossom

July 2011, Castagna, Portland, Oregon. My hometown is a lot of things food-wise–it's hard to get more seasonal, local, handmade, food trucky–but cutting-edge, it's not.  My visit coincided with Chef Matthew Lightner's final week at Castagna before decamping to NYC (Atera still hasn't opened) and I was charmed by the ambitious style of cooking. Then bafflement took over when Summer Squash with Beef Marrow, Tongue, Onion Blossom arrived with a cascade of beef tongue wisps adorned with leaves and flower petals cleaving to the side of the dish. A coincidence or homage?

Town house beef cheek...pastoral

September 2011, Town House, Chilhowie, Virginia.  Experiencing acutely on-trend food–ashes, pine, hay, and weedy herbs galore–in the middle of nowhere was pleasantly jarring.  The unexpected continued with Beef Cheek…Pastoral. The colorful tableau was graced with ruddy strands of fried  beef tongue! Flowers were a given. Used more as complement than a focus, its presence was still hard to ignore.

Should I be waiting for the trickle down effect? As long as we're still scared of pesto (yes, I'm obsessed with that story) I don't see beef tongue and flowers showing up at Olive Garden any time soon. Maybe Brick House Tavern + Tap–they're extreme, right?

Red Rooster (Christmas Edition)

It took Christmas to finally make a trip to Red Rooster, the finally agreed upon choice among my group of three (Chinese or not is always a tough decision), to partake in the advertised buffet. Because holidays=excess.

The spread was by far more Scandinavian than Soul, though, so it didn't exactly count as a typical dining experience at the restaurant. That is not a complaint–the only thing I truly missed was the opportunity to try the yard bird, a.k.a. fried chicken.

Red rooster bread table

Well, there was cornbread in the selection of starches. It was the flaky scone-biscuit rounds with clotted cream that got my attention, though (twice).

Red rooster rainbow produce

The best part were the starters, anchored by a dazzling array of colorful radishes, cauliflower, and carrots. I love rainbow food to the point where I started a Pinterest board, Taste the Rainbow, before learning that was a cliche. I filled up on two trips-worth of gravlax, and herring prepared a million ways (ok, three: pickled, in sour cream, and in a thick green herbal sauce that wasn't pesto).

Red rooster christmas buffet plate one

Round one.

Red rooster christmas buffet plate two

I didn't even get a chance to try the Swedish pork with lingonberries, though I did my best to get a small scoop of just about everything else: mashed sweet potatoes, collard greens, red cabbage, chile-spiked salmon, a small slice of roast beef, skinny green and white beans, Jansson's Temptation, a potato casserole with some sort of pickled fish, and easily the weirdest thing, a Swedish meatball and cocktail frank bake that would be at home in the Midwest. Note the one meatball and one weiner, front and center, that came as a pair.

Red rooster christmas desserts

Desserts included pumpkin pie, fudge, macaroons (not macarons) and a molasses cookies that probably have a Swedish name that I don't know. I forgot to order Glögg, though I kind of maxed out on mulled wine after more than few cups of Glühwein in Berlin a few weeks ago.

The basement set-up, complete with a live band and a roaming woman crooning, There's a Stranger in My House (at least I think that's what the song was) elicited comparisons to a Catskills resort (not that I would know firsthand–Dirty Dancing is my only frame of reference). And we were this close to going to Kutshers for Christmas.

Red Rooster * 310 Malcom X Blvd., New York, NY

VIP@ Thai Cuisine

The other night, I found a paper menu for something called VIP@ Thai Cuisine in the foyer. What the what? I immediately recognized its peculiar brand of menu chaos–and then I decided to place an order. Apparently, Em Thai has rebranded as VIP@ Thai Cuisine. The thing about VIP@ Thai Cuisine/Em Thai is that there are a handful of dishes on the menu that make them the only Thai restaurant I'll order from in the neighborhood, but 90% of the other offerings (the already voluminous menu grew with the re-do) are middling or just plain weird.

I expect them to abide the pad thai, spring roll, green curry tastes of Carroll Gardens, but who asked for a new rambling dessert section? Key lime pie, Living on the Island (coconut jelly in a shell), something called Golden Palaces with no description, and Ruby Coco, i.e. tab tim krob (the one Thai dessert I've ever learned to make) are just a few new choices.

The handful of acceptable, more or less "real" dishes–steamed fish, a spicy pork thing, seafood salad, minced pork with chile and basil topped with a fried egg, grilled chicken with papaya salad–used to be relegated to a tiny section where they warned about heat levels. That "Authentic Specialty" section has grown to 26 items and now includes a panang curry with avocado (even though tempura'd, the vegetal-fruit is great, I'm grossed out by its presence in a hot stewy concoction), chicken breast in a walnut sauce with jade (spinach?) noodles, pork chop on a green salad, and udon all over the place. Oh, and they removed the fried chicken wing salad–I liked that oddball!

Duck duo

I went wild and ordered the rock & roll duck when I really wanted to order the shrimp cheesy roll, a.k.a. " Shrimp, celery, scallions, spinach and Philadelphia cheese wrapped in a rice paper," but chickened out.  Actually it's a roti, not rice paper, and akin to peking duck pancake sandwich with one piece of meat, one scallion, one cucumber spear, and shredded lettuce as filler, er, and  plopped atop a bed of baby spinach. It's heftier than a $1 Flushing peking duck sandwich because of the roti, but more Brooklyn-priced at $6.

VIP@ thai cuisine pa cha pork red hot

Pa Cha Pork Red Hot is genuinely hot, though I always make a polite request in my Seamless Web order to make everything extra spicy because you can't take too many precautions around here.  The krachai, pickled peppercorns, and torn lime leaves, add an extra dimension and earthiness rarely found in the overly sweet local Thai food.

VIP@ thai cuisine duck salad

Duck salad (yes, double duck) is maybe fried a little hard, though it kind of reproduces the bony catfish chunks sometimes found in Thai curries. The pineapple and shredded mango are naturally sweet and balanced by the requested heat. Cashews never hurt.

VIP@ Thai Cuisine * 278 Smith St., Brooklyn, NY

The Bird

As often happens when researching dining options in foreign cities, I stumble upon something interesting, but too American for a short trip (unlike Las Vegas, which I'm currently researching, where restaurants are literal NYC duplicates–do I really need to travel to a desert to eat at Blue Ribbon Sushi, Scarpetta, or Grimaldi's?). Often, though, my curiosity gets the better of me and I give in after sampling a respectable amount of local specialties. (I'm not saying I burn out on regional foods, but that after, say, a week of eating laksa, char kway teow, and hawker fare, I feel less guilty about trying a Singaporean Pizza Hut.)

So it was with The Bird, a "New York style bar and steakhouse," which did a good job at reproducing the Saturday night Brooklyn dining experience. The best reservations we could get on short notice were for 10pm (at least they take reservations–Germans are obsessed with reservations–I don't think you can even dine without them) and we still had to wait for a spell at the bar, which never bothers me if I have a stool to park my aging self.

The bird da birdhouse

I wasn't there to eat a pricey corn-fed steak imported from Iowa, but the 11.50 Euro burger that I had read raves about, claims that it wasn't only the best burger in Berlin, but possibly ever in the universe.  Really?

We were there to tackle the two griddled burgers (there are also a number of grilled burgers with creative toppings), Da Birdhouse, a house burger, so to speak, and The Big Crack, a take on the McDonald's classic. My original intent to split and share was thwarted by their oozing sprawl, so I stuck with Da Birdhouse.

The bird the big crack

Here's what The Big Crack looks like, though.

I initially scoffed at the tough-guy admonishment on the menu "At least TRY eating the damn burger with your hands. All you uptight people with your forks and your knives are driving us crazy." But I could almost, just almost, see the impossibility of eating these monsters out of hand without the whole mess spilling out all over the table. For the record, I do shamelessly eat pizza with fork and knife, usually plastic. I will never fold and I will never cave.

That message to fussy locals was unheeded, by the way. Everyone was not only using forks and knives, but mutilating their burgers. I was dumbfounded by the woman who had removed her top bun, scraped off the entire tuft of guacamole (they made a big deal on the menu about how it's hard to source avocados) and was just cutting away at the patty.

The other signal that this isn't really New York-style at all is the mayonnaise that accompanies the fries, so randomly hand cut, it's like a sampler for those who enjoy both shoestrings and steak fries.

The bird da birdhouse insides

The meat, two-patties-worth, is a super loose grind and packed lightly, hence the mess. The greasiness is divine and melds with the generous amount of oozing American cheese, my favorite aspect of a burger, or rather, cheeseburger. Dripping cheese and grease is the whole point (I'll never understand meat and bun only purists). Da Bird's closest American kin would be In-N-Out's Double Double, and due to its extra beefiness, a notch above. It really didn't need bacon and caramelized onions, though, because there was excess aplenty as it was.

My only beef (sorry, it's Christmas Eve and my guard is down) was the absence of a straightforward bun. An English muffin isn’t un-American, it’s not just my first choice. I'm all for mayonnaise-dipped fries, but certain liberties just can't be taken. That the odd choice of starch did not detract in the least, proves the strength of Da Bird. I can't declare it the best; it wouldn't feel right, but I wouldn't be embarrassed recommending a New Yorker-run restaurant serving $15 cheeseburgers to visitors–after you've had your fill of sausages and schnitzel, of course.

German mcrib box
German mcrib

If you want to be totally American in Berlin you can pick up a McRib–all-year-round. Germany is the only country in the world with the limited-edition sandwich permanently on the menu.

The Bird * Am Falkplatz 5, Berlin, Germany

What Do You Propose?

Diamond3Two food-related proposals (chocolate chip cookies and an Italian menu were involved) made it into this New York Times piece about people, i.e. men, with too much time on their hands (I kid–this is romantic, right? Right?)  yet neither involved hiding the ring inside of a dessert or plate of pasta. So much disappointment.

In a related article, one woman was spurred into becoming a proposal planner (do I hear a second career calling?) after a friend was presented with an engagement ring at the bottom of a KFC bucket. See, if I were the proposal planner I would take my $99 fee and suggest the Famous Bowl instead.

Photo: My Lucky Fortune

El Gauchito

If you’re like me, you probably don’t find yourself at the intersection of Junction Boulevard and Corona Avenue that often. It’s not really near anything (unless you live nearby, of course–one man's far away is always someone else's neighborhood) besides Citifield. It's not a bad intersection for choice; there’s Peruvian, Colombian, a pizzeria selling Mexican food, and dueling Argentine parrilladas with butcher counters across the street from each other.

El gauchito exterior

My original intent was to go to La Esquina Criolla, a place I have only been once and not recently, but it was practically empty while El Gauchito had a wait for tables despite being twice the size (there’s a another dining room to the left of the entrance). Normally I hate lines, but this felt less like a lemming situation and more like the diners knew something that I didn't. It only ended up being 10 minutes.

El Gauchito is relaxed, fun, and the walls are plastered with colorful tiles with Argentine celebs and public figures painted on them, that style that seems whimsical and '80s but is just kind of Spanish, or in this case a Euro-Latino mash-up. It's the kind of place where you don’t feel self-conscious buying a $24 bottle of Malbec; just like in Buenos Aires there’s a lot of value. And also like in Argentina you can have pasta (I love how gnocchi is spelled ñocchi—it makes so much more phonetic sense) and milanesas if you don’t feel like grilled meat.

El gauchito provolone

First you’re brought a provolone and salami appetizer, dressed in chimichurri and oregano. It's a good thing I got a little cheese into my system or else I would've been tempted to order the provoleta, and the last thing I need right now is an oozing slab of grilled cheese.

El gauchito parrillada

Instead of the full mixed grill I went dainty and ordered a combo, number four. I really just wanted a bursting at the seams morcilla–Argentine versions are unusually moist, loosely packed and spreadable–and flank steak, medium-rare. The chorizo is often too dry and crumbly for my tastes–I prefer a fattier, cured Spanish version or the ground-up Mexican style. But anything doused in garlicky chimichurri (if Americans are scared of pesto, how well would they handle this?) is elevated a notch or two. The pictured fries and Russian salad are just two side options; less Argentine, more Latino beans and rice can also be had.

El gauchito panqueque

Even if you're full (just eat half your meat) a panqueque, filled with thick dulce de leche, and smeared with whipped cream is delightful, especially with the tableside pyrotechnics that don't accompany all panqueques in the city.

The one oddity, perhaps to discourage lingering and alleviate weekend lines, was a sign in the window declaring that no alcohol would be served after meals.

Yes, I’ve been playing with Instagram, hence the inconsistent filters. Even though I had toted my DSLR along, sometimes you just don’t feel the need to go hardcore food porny on a restaurant.

El Gauchito * 94-60 Corona Ave., Corona, NY

Where Pesto Has Failed to Infiltrate

No capers

So so much to be gleaned from this WSJ article on the quirks of chain restaurant diners (none terribly surprising, but still) plus it managed to use both palate and palette (correctly) a feat as enjoyable as when a character in a movie says the name of the movie.

Olive Garden eaters are turned off by the saltiness of capers and the er, greenness of pesto (I thought that condiment went mainstream around 1990, along with sun-dried tomatoes and hummus–the latter currently being tested at T.G.I. Friday’s), won’t eat pears and Gorgonzola or gnocchi, refuse to part with that frosted salad bowl from another era (that era when pesto became a part of the American diet), and love cheese and chicken more than life itself. Pretty much they’re the worst people on earth.

Applebee’s and T.G.I. Friday’s customers are wilder because they’ll eat okra, ahi tuna and hard boiled eggs cut into wedges. Romano’s Macaroni Grill diners are rich and less scared of Italian food. Why have I not been there yet?

Despite the lowest common denominator approaches employed, the brands are not unaware that more adventurous diners are turned off by the chain staples.

"'We always have to be careful to not always offer cheesy, chickeny things and pastay things,' because such dishes might push away customers with more advanced palates, says John Caron, president of Olive Garden."

As a result, Olive Gardens offers a non-fried, pasta-less, cheese-free bouillabaisse-type seafood dish that costs more than average ($16.25, which I’m sure is not the NYC price–ok, it's $23. 95 in Times Square, which is why chains are best experienced in their natural habitats) and that no one orders. The brodetto is for advanced palates only.

Bier’s Kudamm 195

Even if you don’t like hotdogs (I don’t—and while anyone who has only read things I’ve posted this week would think that I’m finicky, hotdogs and melon are seriously the only two foods I actively avoid) you must try a currywurst if you’re in Berlin.

Biers currywurst

Sure, it’s pretty much a fried wiener sliced into bite sized pieces, doused in ketchup sprinked with curry powder, and served with a roll on the side. You can order the dish with skinless or skin-on franks, though it was the grease-coated, crisped-up casing that I thought made the currywurst with a little textural contrast against the sweet, mildly spiced sauce. I only regret not ordering fries because the bright red goo would be a perfect dip.

Biers facadeYou can find currywurst anywhere any time of day or night. I just happened to pick Bier's, just outside the Friedrichstraße S-Bahn station, because it was near where I was staying and I had heard they made their own sauce unlike many others.

If anything, I was impressed at the rampant use of real plates and glassware, here and at other fast food and outdoor eateries around the city (at the Christmas markets you had to pay a 1.50-2 Euro deposit on the gluwein mugs) as well as the local penchant for eating and drinking outdoors, despite rain and near freezing temperatures.

Bier's Kudamm 195, Friedrichstraße 142, Am Eingang S-Bahnhof Berlin, Germany