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threeshovelThere are times when I’d like to start a gimmick blog, only eating at restaurants run by fellow Leos, traveling to every Bonefish Grill around the country, or subsisting on nothing but carbs for a year. Decaded, or maybe Aluminum Anniversary, would chronicle my mission to only eat at restaurants that have been open at least ten years. Or maybe ones where I haven’t been back in ten years? (Gael Greene is on this trend.)

I would have to wait a few months to include WD-50, but it would make for a worthy example. A lot can change in a decade.  My last visit was at the end of 2004 before the dilemma of whether or not to act like a civilized adult and leave the camera at home was a thought. Back then I only used words, I talked about the food even less than I do now, I didn’t do the tasting menu, and the restaurant seemed very upscale. I also thought I was too old to be drinking on the LES in 2004. Now, that’s a given and I’ve moved past it, so I hit Barramundi’s happy hour first just like
last time.

As to what upscale means now, WD-50 still is in price and intent, but as far as fine dining goes it’s relaxed (I ultimately opted for the camera, obviously, and it was no big thing), service is just friendly enough and the chef was hands on in the kitchen, despite Alder’s impending opening.

We’re at a contrarian moment regarding tasting menus. I’ll admit that I shy away from them more than I used to, but they have their place when marking  the periodic special occasion (in this case Valentine’s Day not on the 14th and not technically with someone who is my boyfriend any longer). Or when someone else is paying, of course.

I’m not so much of a nostalgist that I needed to dip into the vault, as they’re calling the smaller tasting menu that reprises classics. I wanted the modern version, the only other option, that was introduced last spring. Some of the dishes still bear a resemblance to the original iterations (I was extremely relieved to see that the honeydew had been dropped in the chartreuse dessert, but I wouldn’t have minded trying the root beer ribs).

I chose an Oregon pinot noir (after starting with a Rye Not?), Elk Cove’s 2010 Clay Court, because lighter reds are solid fallback if you’re going to stick with one wine for multiple courses, I have a soft spot for my home state, and West Coast pinot noirs made up a good number of the red wines on the list. Bizarrely, the couple next to use who only asked for “a red,” were steered toward Oregon pinot noirs. Is it a varietal and region for beginners?

Wd-50 nigiri, salsify, seaweed, sesame

Nigiri, salsify, seaweed, sesame. Cream cheese and seaweed are turned into spheres that mimick the trout roe, and that’s salsify not rice as the base. My original WD-50 visit prompted the created of the Eclectic/International category because I didn’t know where this food fell. I would be more inclined to just call it American now, sushi or not.

Wd-50 sweet shrimp, 'pine needles,' chestnut, cranberry

Sweet shrimp, ‘pine needles,’ chestnut, cranberry.  A little Nordic, a little Christmas. Pine needles freak me out in a good way, and these aren’t coniferous but crafted so they nearly dissolved in the mouth rather than offending with menthol chew.

Wd-50 pho gras

Pho gras. One of my favorites, maybe because it’s a play on a familiar dish. The rice noodles were almost superfluous; what mattered most were the foie gras torchon and beef tendon chicharron that could be doled out into the cinnamon-and-star anise-spiked consomme to melt and transform into a seriously luxe soup. The little dots of combo hoisin-and-Sriracha and microgreens only helped matters. No making fun of tweezer-style plating here.

Wd-50 bone marrow, potato, pomegranate, pepper streusel

Bone marrow, potato, pomegranate, pepper streusel. I liked the idea and presentation of this more than the reality. I may be mixing up where the potato and marrow end up, but if I’m correct the edible bone is made from the animal product and had a cartilagey, powdery quality while the invented marrow lacked the unctuousness the brain expects.

Wd-50 bay scallop, pear, oatmeal-nori

Bay scallop, pear, oatmeal-nori. Then again, this also played with that chalky texture in the form of oatmeal and it worked. I would never put a single one of these ingredients together, a blend that created a tamped down sweet-saline effect.

Wd-50 pig tail, artichoke, olive oil jam, hazelnut

Pig tail, artichoke, olive oil jam, hazelnut. There’s always a dish or two that slips past me. That description is from the website (somehow I didn’t get the paper menu) but I’m not convinced that’s what this was. Compressed meat, likely pork, yes, and there were definitely hazelnut overtones, but also lemon, and what looks like fluffy grated cheese and melting more like Monterrey Jack than parmesan, is bone marrow, maybe the bone marrow I missed in the potato dish.

Wd-50 bass, squash, cherry, juniper, couscous

Bass, squash, cherry, juniper, couscous.

Wd-50 squab, tomato hummus, pickled turnips, tzatziki

Squab, tomato hummus, pickled turnips, tzatziki. I was not expecting Mediterranean flavors. “Green liquid falafel right on,”  as my disjointed notes read. I’ll stick with that. There was also a pleasant livery flavor, likely from the game bird.

Wd-50 flatiron, mushroom jerky, grape, verjus

Flatiron, mushroom jerky, grape, verjus.  The meatiest course was also the most straightforward. Dried mushrooms and grapes and the umami and sweetness they added weren’t out of line with the thick cut of rare beef.

Wd-50 coconut, cucumber, pineapple, chartreuse

Coconut, cucumber, pineapple, chartreuse. The doom dessert that wasn’t, though it still was startlingly vegetal for my liking.  Barely sweet from the pineapple, it’s a bridge more than a dessert.

Wd-50 walnut, sweet potato, coffee, plum wine

Walnut, sweet potato, coffee, plum wine.

Wd-50 s'mores, bitter cocoa, meringue, blackberry

S’mores, bitter cocoa, meringue, blackberry. Ok, a real dessert. I don’t always remember the sweet courses like the one above, but this one with the smokiness, chile heat, fruit tartness (I tasted cherry rather than blackberry) and gooey texture stuck with me.

Wd-50 beer, malt, pretzel

Beer malt pretzel.

Big mac

How many times (don’t tell me never) have you heard the “I had to eat a Big Mac afterward,” cliche used to deride the sorry effeteness of tasting menus? I have never ever had that experience, but we hit the
McDonald’s on Delancey (Shamrock shakes are back!) afterwards anyway just to make the trope complete. I wasn’t hungry even an hour later,  safely home watching The Americans, but it had to be done.  What I took away after not having eaten this burger in at least two decades was that even if you’re not hungry after a tasting menu, you can always make room for a Big Mac.

 WD-50 * 59 Clinton St., New York, NY

Chain Links: Uno, Dos, Tres

Mexico city chicken

I was getting a little concerned that the Middle
East was hogging all the international Cheesecake Factories for itself. No
worries (ha, why does everyone hate "no problem" and "no
worries" so much?) Mexico and Chile (and possibly Argentina, Brazil,
Colombia and Peru) will see at least 12 locations in the next eight years. I do
wonder if Mexico City, the first recipient, will put Mexico City Chicken, i.e. "fresh
lime chicken breasts over black beans and chicken chorizo, with white rice and spicy
tomato sauce. topped with roasted corn salsa," on the menu.

Brazil, Colombia, Panama and the Dominican Republic
may not be seeing Cheesecake Factories any time soon, however, these countries
will possibly be consoled by Darden brands like Red Lobster, Olive Garden and
Longhorn Steakhouse.
Sorry, no Bahama Breeze.

No one in Columbia or Peru probably asked for a Sbarro, but too bad. If the existing Mexican Sbarros are any indication, the other Latin American markets won't see a single nod to localization. The elusive Stuffed Philly Cheese Steak pizza survives south of the border, though.

Mexico City chicken photo: Lon&Queta/Flickr

Hormel, You Compleat Me

Breakfast cheesesteak

While on my monthly suburban excursion, I thought Quick Chek’s new (to me) Breakfast Cheesesteak might be the find of the journey. Turns out Sonic, just down Route 1 a bit, has a Zesty Cheesesteak Breakfast Burrito. Two’s a trend.

Partycake peeps

But that was before I found party cake-flavored
Peeps at Walmart. How does one make something taste like party cake? Not sure,
but it’s that same synthetic vanilla, butter and maybe eggy quality that
defines cake batter ice creams at places like Coldstone Creamery. The Peeps are
covered in rainbow speckles to denote a party and their marshmallow guts are
not bright white but pale yellow. Is yellow cake a party cake?


The Hormel Compleats aisle may be the saddest
section at Wegmans. This was reinforced by the row of Healthy Choice’s Lunch
taunting at eye level. I would seriously cry if my midday meal was a
small plastic tub with a small portion of pasta or white rice and a quarter cup
of goop waiting to be mixed in and microwaved (the cover as strainer is kind of
cool, I suppose?). If you wanted to stay under 300 calories couldn't you just eat a bowl of soup or something?  If anything, these packaged meals would probably benefit from
a little horse meat to liven things up a bit. I am going to order some medicore sushi off Seamless now.

Bonefish Grill Staten Island

If I were a paid mystery shopper for Bloomin’ Brands
Inc. or a fake employee on Mystery Diners (that show is so staged, right?) I’d have to report some underperformance at NYC’s first Bonefish Grill. One could go as far as saying I’m a Bonefish aficionado (no one should go as far as saying afishianado) since I’m unabashed about it being my favorite casual dining chain. Sometimes it even gives me feelings. Staten Island’s attempt, though, left me feeling that they weren’t quite following New Jersey’s model.

They do take reservations, unusual for a chain, and it’s an amenity not fully advertised so it’s great for  pissing off people who’ve been waiting close to an hour for their beeper to go off while you get seated straightway (this is how you induce envy in the suburbs).

So, with said reservations at 8:30pm on a Friday, intentionally arrived early to scope out the bar scene. The restaurant, a former Carrabba’s (there’s also no Olive Garden in S.I. which makes me wonder if the Italian-American contingent won’t abide chains) was far less bustling than its New Jersey counterparts. And while less crowded, it still felt understaffed. It took 15 minutes to get a drink, we weren’t given the list of specials (I’m not going to order a White Winter Cosmopolitan anyway, but you should offer) and I was asked if I wanted the blue cheese olives in my “Three Olives” Martini (quotes, all theirs) a not uncommon New York-ism where you order something as described on the menu and then are asked what you want in it. So, yes, I want the three blue cheese olives. Of interest, they were serving Brooklyn Sorachi Ace and lager, a nod to NYC not found at Garden State locations.

Bonefish grill staten island bread

I started getting panicky (ok, not really) when the bread and pesto dipping sauce didn’t automatically arrive after being seated and I didn’t see evidence on anyone’s table. Once again, like the cheesey olives, we were asked if we wanted bread instead of it arriving by default. Why do they not understand that America is about excess? Would Red Lobster ask if you wanted Cheddar Bay Biscuits? Of course not because the biscuits are the only reason to dine at Red Lobster. Bonefish’s warm cibatta is no Cheddar Bay Biscuit, but it’s part of the routine. The loaf eventually came, but naked on a plate instead of swaddled in the usual white poly-blend napkin in a metal basket. Is this approved by corporate?

Bonefish grill staten island bang bang shrimp

The signature Bang Bang Shrimp arrived minutes after ordering, suspiciously fast. And suspiciously soft.

Bonefish grill staten island lobster thermidor

I don’t go to Bonefish for pin-pricks of sauce or tweezered micro-herbs artfully arranged on the plate, but I wouldn’t mind a little symmetry. My Lobster Thermidor Dorado (a not bad mahi mahi filet smothered in cream sauce, crab meat and lobster claws) is about to escape off the plate.

True to form, they did play moderately obscure alternative songs (It was “Shellshock” that originally endeared me) that now sound adult contemporary like Echo and the Bunnyman’s 1996 past its prime, “Stormy Weather.”

Cadillac hubcap

On the way back to Brooklyn, a Cadillac exploded or I don’t even know what and a flying hubcap shredded our tire. And then the flat replacement had a hole. I can’t help but think that waiting two hours for AAA to do something (they won’t rescue on the BQE, by the way; you must get your car up an exit onto a service road unless you want to pay extra for the tow) in teen temps (no surer way to sober up after a few Zombies) was a sure sign that suburban chains are best left to the real suburbs, just as a Dallas BBQ would make no sense in Westchester, a working theory that needed to be made concrete. Go try some of that Times-approved Sri Lankan food, instead.

Bonefish Grill * 280 Marsh Ave., Staten Island, NY

Three Letters

When I heard “70’s French Truck Stop,” my first
thought was Restaurant Madrid, a ramshackle diner along the route between Quebec City and Montreal with monster trucks and
dinosaurs in the parking lot, even though that's French-Canadian, not French French. My second thought was "that's
likely bullshit," though to be fair they did temper their vision with "vaguely." (I had similar thoughts when The Third Man
was described endlessly as inspired by the Loos Bar, a description I
wouldn't have questioned if I hadn't just been in Vienna and knew better. I
also see I'm not alone in my grumbling.)

I still wanted to see what Three Letters was about,
if only because Clinton Hill is a little new restaurant-deprived. I was not
alone in my curiosity. At 7pm on a Saturday there was already a half-hour wait
and by the time I was seated it was getting a little traumatic (many of the same people
were still waiting for tables by the time we vacated). Buzz, they have it.

Meanwhile, The Wallace, just a ways down Fulton is
always empty and now a daily deal staple (couples on both sides of my table,
British, deeper-middle-aged and not impressed with Three Letters, and the two younger men who liked
things fine, mentioned this dichotomy, one to me intentionally, the other overheard) which makes me feel bad because the food at the Wallace is
solid and the newlyweds who run it seem earnest. It's just not a cool place.

Perhaps its the bar with a good number of seats and lots
of inexpensive snacks, including everyone's must-have: pickles, as we're now
all living in a "fried pickle environment." (About those pickles–I
got into an elevator conversation with coworker I've never really spoken with
before and it turns out she lives nearby, had gone on opening night and took issue
with what was described as fried pickles on the menu being fried pickled
vegetables, not pickled cucumbers, i.e. how the average American thinks of
pickles, and got condescended to by the bartender when asking about it.) The
prices don't hurt; the most expensive thing on the menu is $18 and bottles of
wine topped out at $45.

Three letters venison rissoles

Rissoles are like savory turnovers, and stuffed with
venison are not wildly dissimilar in concept to Do or Dine's fawntons. Served
with a smoked cherry jam, the $4 hors d'œuvre is one of those aforementioned
bites that could be fun to nibble at the bar.

The smaller dishes had more appeal on paper, though
I didn't get to fully test out this theory. Moules poutine, mussels, fries and
gravy, came from the kitchen in a steady stream, landing on what appeared to be
every table but ours (yet still made it onto the check–we were scolded for not
saying anything about not receiving it sooner). So, not all French French,
after all.

Three letters chicken st. james

I never order the roast chicken, but thought I'd
test out a basic, here called Chicken St. James and accompanied by grilled
broccoli and a potato gratin, described as pommes alene. I got nervous when
warned that it was "cooked to order" and would take 20 minutes, since
I would expect everything to be cooked to order. I remembered why I don't order
roast chicken unless it's pollo a la brasa: it's really boring.

The food, overall, is just ok. I'd rather eat at a
French truck stop in France, but I wouldn't discourage anyone in the vicinity
from stopping by (it's really a neighborhood restaurant, not the destination it
was being treated as). I would go back if someone suggested it. I don't know that they will. The service
could use a little softening around the edges, despite the allowances I can
make for a super-slammed opening weekend.

Three Letters * 930 Fulton St., Brookyn, NY


Eaten, Barely Blogged: Crickets, Chicken Combos, Salted Caramel

La popular quint

La Antojeria Popular We'll always have the
hole-in-the-wall taquerias (and despite what West Coasters argue, NYC has
plenty of Mexican food that doesn't suck) even as flashier entrants come in
waves. La Esquina to Hecho in Dumbo to Tacombi, and more recently El Toro
Blanco, Salvation Taco and La Antojeria Popular, the latter being the newest offering from the
owners of Taka Taka, the Mexican conveyor
belt sushi restaurant in Soho. As the name implies, the menu is made up of
antojitos, a.k.a. little snacks or "Mexican tapas," some more
traditional than others. Pictured is a sampling (gratis, in the name of full disclosure)
that includes the Guerrero (raw tuna cubes and mango tossed in serrano
mayonnaise on a jicama round), Michoacan (chicken in mole sauce with toasted
sesame seeds and crema on a corn tostada), Zacatecas (sirloin, salsa verde,
chihuahua cheese, also on a corn tostada) and Tamaulipas (steak, beans, chihuahua
cheese, pasilla mayonnaise–mayo is definitely a thing–in a pita sort of like
a taco arabe). For obvious reasons the Oaxaca topped with crickets–a little salty and chewy, not so
scary–and avocado on a blue corn tortilla, has gotten the most press. There is
also a small selection of ceviches and sides like the Distrito Federal (a mix
of shrimp, tilapia and beef) and Morelos, which are esquites (corn, mayonnaise,
chile, lime topped with a square of queso fresco). Desserts include a flan with
cajeta and increasingly omnipresent La Newyorkina paletas.

Pio pio matador comboPio Pio My favorite Peruvian chain. Ok, maybe NYC's
only Peruvian chain (I guess there's similarly named Pio Pio Riko too?). The
Matador Combo is $34 well spent, and minus the hot dog fries there's nothing terribly offbeat about Peruvian food, despite it winning the top "exotic" spot among US consumers surveyed about Latin American cuisine. Of course you get the chicken, burnished,
garlicky and salty (I think soy sauce is a not-so-secret ingredient) and no
matter how many birds they churn out (it will never not be crowded on a weekend night) still
moist, plus salchipapas, everyone's favorite french fry and wiener dish, avocado
salad, rice, beans, tostones, and the all-important green sauce (mayonnaise
being the not-at-all-secret ingredient). I like the metal bucket crammed full
of Heinz mustard and ketchup, even if I don't what the condiments are meant to go with.

Big gay ice cream salty pimpBig Gay Ice Cream Shop So, I've never been. Some
people think I don't like desserts, which isn't true at all. I just rarely go
to sweets-only shops and never patronize food trucks or street fairs or carnivals or whevever it is that sugar is sold in multiple formats. The Salty
Pimp with its chocolate-dipped vanilla ice cream and salted dulce de leche is
pretty perfect, and they even offer to put it in a dish for you, a flourish I
like because I'm fussy (yes, a fork-and-knife pizza-eater). Don't go after 11pm,
though, if you want something more elaborate like the Monday Sundae (similar
flavors to the Salty Pimp but in a bigger Nutella-lined waffle cone and
smothered in whipped cream) because they won't make it. And there was more of
that Fany Gerson and her La Newyorkina paletas–she gets around.