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Brace For Bhut Jolokia Mayo

There’s no doubt that Americans are increasingly into spicy food. Look no further than the mainstreaming of Sriracha and chipotle everything. How many decades has that stat about salsa outselling ketchup been floating around?

Food service research firm Technomic solidifies this with figures showing that last year the number of Americans who prefer their food “very spicy” tipped over to the majority (54%) for the first time.

The Wall Street Journal provides some examples of packaged food brands getting into the spicy food game like Kraft going beyond pepperjack with Hot Habenero cheese and Bumble Bee adding jalapeños to its gourmet line of canned tuna, but the premise that spicy food creates loyalty is sort of bizarre (as is lumping in Cracked Dijon Mustard Ball Park hot dogs when really the story is about heat, not strong flavors).

I did learn one thing, and it’s that young people and Latinos aren’t the only ones to blame in this crusade against blandness. Old folks and their deadening taste buds must also take some responsibility.

The Post-Millennium Chains of Middlesex County New Jersey: Seasons 52

The Post-Millennium Chains of Middlesex County New Jersey explores the brave new world beyond Olive Garden and Red Lobster that’s thriving just west of Staten Island.

The shtick: All “seasonally-inspired” dishes are under 475 calories. You might see lamb or asparagus in spring, for instance.
The signatures: Cedar plank roasted salmon, flatbreads.
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Unfortunately, nothing is fried. The lump crab, roasted shrimp & spinach stuffed mushrooms do come with a parmesan-panko crust, at least.

My second experience with Seasons 52 has given me a better grip on the chain’s M.O., not that it’s hard to grasp (think anti-Applebee’s). Just a few months ago this new branch sprung up in the Menlo Park Mall’s parking lot down by the ’80s, vaguely art deco sign. Menlo Park is no King of Prussia. Reservations are available through Open Table, making it the classiest Darden brand by far, and you’ll need them on the weekend. Even with reservations, it’s likely you will still have time for a drink at the bar before your table is ready–just like a real city restaurant. There is a piano player in the bar where booths are first come first serve. I mean literally behind the circular bar there’s a guy pounding out Stevie Wonder or taking requests while servers scurry around picking up trays of rosy Strawberry Basil Fusions (strawberry-infused Prairie Organic Vodka, agave nectar and basil) and Pomegranate Margarita Martinis that are neither margarita nor martini.

seasons 52 cocktails

Do note the Prairie Mule. Moscow Mule variations are very in at chains and probably the biggest crossover drink of the year, I’m guessing because they’re really just a gingery vodka soda in a cooler cup. Brooklyn-chic shops like West Elm and the ecommerce arm of Food52, which I always want to call Seasons 52, both sell the copper mugs.

seasons 52 double date

Photo: Seasons 52

This is exactly how I imagined my party of four appeared. Exactly. The advertised “casually-sophisticated adult ambiance that feels inviting” is no joke. Warm wood is inter-cut with stone mosaic walls, high ceilings are crisscrossed with rafters that evoke an upscale ranch, and open shelves of wine act as room dividers. The epitome of a grown-up restaurant.

After a few stops in New Jersey to see if anyone carried the Times-approved 2009 Haut-Medoc Bordeaux (Wegmans, of all places, came through) I had to order a glass of 2010 Chateau de Parenchère Bordeaux just because there was a Bordeaux on the menu at all. Never mind that it was the wrong vintage and region. I’d also made a Costco trip that inspired me to buy a huge jug of Woodbridge cabernet sauvignon as a gift for one half of my double date because they live in neighboring Woodbridge, NJ (duh).

seasons 52 appetizers

Chilled lobster & shrimp spring roll and blackened steak & blue cheese flatbread with cremini mushrooms, spinach, caramelized onions.

The food is what would happen if Cooking Light came to life as a restaurant, except that everything is plated in a slightly nicer manner than you might bother with at home–most dishes are presented with some sort of flourish like table-side saucing–and your portions are meted out, no seconds because you were left unsatisfied. Proteins are modest and bolstered by other on-trend components and lots of adjectives are applied to make perfectly fine, but never quite delicious food sound more craveable.

seasons 52 turkey skewer

Hence, the Plainfield farm turkey skewer, grilled vegetable-farro pilaf with zinfandel bbq glaze. Farro not rice, glaze not sauce, zinfandel not wine, and the metal rod (shown in this much prettier publicity shot) is pulled from the poultry cubes in front of your eyes.

seasons 52 steak salad

The steak salad comes trapped in a clear plastic ring mold, half-a-foot high. After being lifted up by a server, the leaves tumble out to join the fingerling potatoes, charred onions and medium-rare slices of meat. I could not even tell you what the dressing was since the point is shaving calories, not creating lush memories for life.

seasons 52 mini indulgences

The best part might be the dessert course a.k.a. mini indulgences. Normally, who cares about sweets at chains, but it’s hard to ignore the selection that’s placed on the table–especially since each flavor is highlighted with a penlight as its being described. I guess someone has to run and grab another glass of goop if more than one person wants the same thing?

seasons 52 pecan pie

Yeah, this is a pecan pie. If you’ve ever wondered what mini indulgence you would be, here’s a quiz for you. I’m a Rocky Road because I’m a “quintessential chocoholic,”  thanks for asking. Buzzfeed, Seasons 52 is not.

Seasons 52 * 217 Lafayette Ave., Edison, NJ

End Times

New non-lame brioche bun. Photo: Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel

New non-lame brioche bun
Photo: Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel

I woke up feeling not quite right, a malaise I initially attributed to poor sleep and unsettling ’90s boyfriend dreams possibly induced by too much Thai food (Larb Ubol really is the best of the Ninth Street bunch, by the way) and few too many beers at tourist-filled Irish bars near Penn Station. But now I recognize that the unease must have something to do with all of the sudden changes surfacing in the chain restaurant universe.

I got a hint last week when I read about Tony Roma’s (yes, it still exists) adding fish and couscous and Hard Rock Cafe swapping out the processed cheese on its nachos for a cheddar and jack blend. But today we reached a tipping point, and the potato bun-hating, salted caramel-loving millennials have finally won. Since I decided to get out of bed, I’ve discovered the following:

Ok, I’m going back to bed now.

The Best Dessert You’ll Ever Eat Off a Rubber Sheet

Recent dessert trolling (I don’t actually consider being contrary or even intentionally rabble-rousing to be trolling, but you know) got me thinking about my never-posted visit to Alinea last fall. I favor traditional desserts, by which I mean sweet, gooey and substantial. I’ll eat your spruce-and-stone soup, but how about a towering layer cake bulging with veins of frosting afterward? Accompanied with a quenelle of nasturtium sorbet and crumbles of “soil,” if you must.

Alinea, despite the pageantry and production, produced a real dessert. One that pushed me over the precipice from sated to stuffed while raising my impression of 13 creations I’d been presented with. At the end of the meal, you’re presented with a menu to remind you of everything you just ate, the procession sort of being a surprise if you ignore diners who arrived earlier. Each course represented by a circle with a circumference in proportion to the amount of food. The server even commented that the dessert circle, deceptively medium-large, didn’t seem drawn to scale.

king crab

First, an institutional gray waterproof cloth is laid down. And because I was on my tenth and final wine pairing at this point (never mind the pre-dinner pints at the only restaurant open before 5pm in the immediate vicinity, a seafood joint with an adorable crab with a toupee logo where I was preemptively warned against using Groupons during happy hour) I said, “Oh, a rubber sheet” aloud instead of keeping my bed-wetting thoughts to myself.

alinea creme de violette

A stubby glass of what appeared to be Creme de Violette and turned out to be exactly that was set down. Everyone secretly knows that the liqueur tastes like Sweet Tarts, but the color is so crystalline and pretty that you want to assign more sophistication to it.

alinea pate sucree, violet, hazelnut

I did not take a video because I don’t do such things (or even bring my SLR–half-way through I did start taking iPhone pics, despite a promise to myself to focus on the food and company, because the tables were so well spaced that the act was extremely unobtrusive) but if there was a dish crying out for such treatment, this would be it. Crumbles are set up in the round, bolstered by a metal mold, and topped with a layer of brown liquid. Then the purple liqueur is joined by a fuchsia partner and a white cream to be dotted and swooped across the table in a seemingly spontaneous, but clearly orchestrated manner. In the meantime, the centerpiece has gelled into a cake. Meringue moon rocks are strategically placed and the edible tableau is dusted with silver and purple glitter. Ok, and a leaf.

Now you can dig into what the menu calls milk chocolate pate sucree, violet, hazelnut.

alinea pate sucree, violet, hazelnut done

No one forces you to eat the whole thing.

alinea duck accompaniments

Up until this point, the duck only described as ……..?????…………!!!!!!!!!!!!! and accompanied by a board of condiments ranging from single leaves to a yolky blob topped with saffron to a white powdery cylinder, had been the most wowing. The duck is probably still my favorite, and just as fun, but I have to give props to a tasting menu dessert that over-delivers.

Alinea * 1723 N. Halstead, Chicago, IL


threeshovelMy illogical bias against Italian food (Italian-American to be more precise) has a counterpoint, and that’s Filipino food. Yes, I have a fetish for the poor culinary underdog. I never thought I’d live to see upscale dinaguan, and yet it was happening right in front of me–in Texas, no less.

qui dinuguan

Said pork blood stew, hadn’t lost its deep brown sheen in translation (there’s a reason why trickster adults tell kids dinaguan is chocolate). Yet despite the rich funk, the dish of sauced pork cubes, gnocchi and black trumpet mushrooms wasn’t heavy in the least. Some of this had to do with the small plates being small.

This might not be a selling point for most–especially if you’re a local and not a gluttonous queso-swilling, barbecue-snarfing monster of a tourist–but the portions were perfect after a day of cramming in more meals than ration would dictate.

qui madai

Keeping with the light theme, I tried two raw fish preparations, one more successful than the other. I’ll admit I was drawn to the madai (sea bream) mostly because it featured chapulines, but the fish coupled with daikon was so mild that the legless grasshoppers and hojiblanca olive oil added very little. The rolls tasted as white as they looked.

qui kinilaw

The take on kinilaw with amberjack and a hit of spice, was equally pristine yet had more presence.

qui rabbit

Rabbit was the most New American or maybe I’m reacting to the soft-yolked egg. That’s mizuna, not kale, though, with a carrot sauce and bottarga created from uni. Apparently, Qui has also used uni bottarga along with a corn nut dust on corn on the cob, which sounds awesome. I didn’t really notice it in this dish, though.

qui cheddar cheese ice cream

I don’t want halo-halo unless it contains something ube-flavored and Grimace purple, so it had to be the cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich, which may or may not be a nod to Texas’ cheese dip bounty  (cheddar ice cream, common in the Philippines, is called queso/quezo). The aged cheese was tempered by the addition of goat’s milk cajeta and peanut praline, ending the meal on the same surprising and delicate note that emerged as Qui’s modus operandi.

Qui * 1600 E. Sixth St., Austin, TX

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Frites, Fried Artichokes, General Tso Fried Chicken

antoniono's 6

Antonioni’s Gato was nuts, so too Le Philopsophe. I just wanted to sit at a bar and have some drinks and snacks. Antonioni’s, a short walk away, was suggested–and don’t kill me, but I had no idea what it was because if I ever see anything written about a new restaurant with an Italian-ish name, I skim past it because it’s just not my thing. We all have our biases. I might compare Antonioni’s kitschy mid-century Italian-American theme to Parm, but I’ve never eaten there and am only interested in the pastel, layered ice cream cake.

The restaurant turned out to be fun, bustling yet just chill enough to grab seats at the bar with no maneuvering or hovering. The much-Instagrammed orange jungle animal wallpaper set the right tone. You can start with a stiff brown drink like the Ace High (Laird’s Applejack Brandy, Cocchi di Torino, Luxardo Maraschino, Fernet Branca, Gran Classico, Scrappy’s orange bitters) and end with an intense amaro made from rhubarb that tastes not unpleasingly like burnt tires. The fried artichokes were all hearts, no leaves, making them more like the steak fries of the fried artichoke world. Just a warning. Some people love steak fries. Eggplant rolatini is something I would never order myself, but the eggplant had a smoky quality and crispy edges that kept it from being all about the tomato sauce and melted cheese. The pizza crust could be described as biscuit-y, which I don’t mind. Most people–a mix of older locals, industry types, and families with young children–were eating pasta anyway.

Chez Jef is the cutesy French pop-up that’s acting as a placeholder before the now-dead Bowery Diner turns into something else, presumably. The core menu is short. Just get the steak frites, even if you feel pressure to branch out and try something pseudo-healthy like the salmon with sunchokes so there aren’t two plates of the same thing on the table. The salmon’s boring; the steak isn’t. Plus, you get a metal gravy boat of béarnaise. And a whole jar of cornichons and a pair of tongs to play with if you order charcuterie. The oblong radishes and slices of crusty bread served with a thick slab of butter the size of a Kraft single topped with crunchy sea salt is also a nice freebie.

applebee's black & blue burgerApplebee’s Astoria may have created a new arts district, but there’s still a Pizzeria Uno and Applebee’s in its midst. Order some $1 happy hour oysters and a Mary Pickford (silver rum, maraschino, grenadine, pineapple juice) at the Astor Room, watch a non-blockbuster movie like Grand Budapest Hotel (now gone) at the Kaufman Astoria Cinemas because it will be nearly empty, and then cancel it all out with a Bourbon Black & Bleu burger and a Sam Adams at Applebee’s. The bar is the only thing bustling after 9pm in the immediate vicinity.

Martha Definitely go for the general tso fried chicken (this is also done at Sweet Chick on a waffle, by the way). I was also happy to see that in addition the now requisite brussels sprouts and fish sauce dish, there was a spin on Thai eggplant, spicy, and tossed with basil and bits of hard-boiled eggs that’s almost too much for two. I was less happy about my order being lost and seeing skillet after skillet being diverted elsewhere, but they were super transparent about the mix-up, apologetic and comped a round of drinks, which was all thoughtful. I’m not so paranoid or self-absorbed to think these sorts of snafus are personal (think how many times I order my food, get it, eat it, no biggie) but it seems to be a not uncommon Brooklyn restaurant thing.  Even more confusing was that I subtweeted this issue and Karloff, where I’ve never eaten in my life, responded.


International Intrigue: Commes des Garçons, Camel Meat, Cheese Patties

Though both are slightly out of my wheelhouse (is it just me or has there been an uptick in the use of “wheelhouse” and “sea change” recently?) it is worth noting that while Paris mostly gets Brooklyn burgers, tacos and diners, we will have Racines, a wine bar, “neo-bistro” whatever, opening tomorrow, and were introduced to Rose Bakery, the sort of British restaurant inside a Commes des Garçons boutique, late last year and reviewed by New York this week.

On the other hand, the UAE, which only gets our imports, never the other way around, may send something called Wok Chi our way. More interesting, might be Mandilicious, which partnered with a US-based company earlier this year. I’m not sure if its mascot, Nawaf, or the camel mugagal, would fly here, but a fast food chain serving Yemeni food would be cool.

Burger King isn’t really opening in Crimea. Pizza Hut did open in Iraq, though. Some members of the US Consulate attended the opening and looked pretty happy.

KFC is a little late to the game–McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Subway already have vegetarian menus in India–but the chain with chicken in its name finally joined in. That means paneer zingers, which are breaded fried cheese patties stuffed with a spicy sauce.


The Week’s Top 5 Offers From the Singaporean Daily Deal Site I Accidentally Subscribed to Over a Year Ago

durianAll you can eat durian, plus a waterfall.

western cuisineWestern cuisine, which means pizzas with ranch dressing, chicken, pineapple and beef bacon.

prawnsThe opportunity to bond with loved ones at a 24-hour prawnery.

outbackChicken and ribs at Outback Steakhouse.

kitkatSingapore is no Japan, but you can still access a limited edition green tea Kit Kat.

The Middle Ages: Quick Takes

Dynaco. Monday, 10:16pm. Extremely high concentration of beards and plaid, as well as two men with some serious white hair. In theory, the fireplace would be warming for ancient creaky bones.

Age appropriate? No.

Glorietta Baldy. Saturday, 8:08pm. The very dim lighting could be flattering for the elderly. There is a wi-fi network called “dr butt.”

Age appropriate? No.

Beloved. Friday, 9:48pm. Like a young immigrant’s interpretation of a damask wallpaper, tin ceiling bar, but crafted from what could be found at Home Depot. One benefit of being ignored at the bar is that when you walk out without paying for the drink you eventually got, no one notices.

Age appropriate? No.

Brooklyn Icehouse. Friday, 5:34pm. This is an old staple, and still suitable for a beer and a shot after the occasional trip to Fairway. It may seem weird to order pulled pork sliders now that Hometown is just down the street, though.

Age appropriate? No.


threeshovelI’ll admit that a good deal of last year’s lauded openings–Estela, Contra, Piora, Narcissa, All’Onda–blurred to the point where I didn’t feel the urge to try any of them. Clearly, it’s all the A endings. Estela ended up being a standout, though. It’s kind of amazing how much a good seat (booth for two, ftw) and engaged service can color a dining experience. (For contrast, Glasserie, also for a birthday dinner a few days earlier, was kind of maddening.) It’s also one of those places where you might end up spending more than you intended to–and you’ll still leave with a good impression.

estela salt cod & potato croquettes with borani

Salt cod and potato croquettes with what I’m just now realizing was borani, a Persian spinach yogurt dip that I’ve made and wasn’t quite like this.

estela oysters with trout roe & yuzu

The oysters, super briny and tart from the trout roe and yuzu, were a nice contrast to the also snacky dish that preceded them. They had a spicy finish, despite no indication that they included a spicy component.

estela beef tartare with sunchoke

The hyper-red beef tartare mixed with crisped sunchokes nearly resembled a plate of chopped tomatoes rolled in cornflakes. Each bite was both crunchy and luscious with bread hearty enough to match. Slightly oddball and definitely one of the best dishes.

estela burrata with salsa verde & charred bread

Normally, I wouldn’t bother with burrata in a restaurant but assumed it would have to be more than just cheese and oozing cream (as delicious as that is). The green vegetal pool added a freshness that moved the dish from its rich Italian origins.Yes, there’s charred bread as a base.

estela endive, walnuts, anchovy & ubriaco rosso

The super orangey endive arrived unexpectedly; perhaps someone thought we weren’t getting enough vegetables or were missing an important dish. It didn’t originally jump out at me because it seemed austere. Of course it wasn’t because of the strong cheese (urbriaco rosso) and walnuts.

estela lamb ribs with charmoula and honey

Lamb ribs are having a moment, and this version, heavy with cumin and coated with jalapeño-spiked charmoula and topped with more cilantro and mint, is right on. (Estela really likes the color green and so do I.)

estela pork

The pork wasn’t really necessary, especially after those lamb ribs. The meat itself was perfect and rosy, but where I liked the greenness with the burrata, the herb paste hugging one side of the hunk was almost too grassy.

There’s no grief if you don’t order a bottle of wine, which tend to be expensive in comparison to the food (I’d already had a cocktail at the bar and a few beers downstairs at Botanica where they were also playing New Order). Even the wines by the glass are presented thoughtfully–after sampling three “unusual” whites,” I picked a  Jura chardonnay.

As an aside, there was what appeared to be a hot teen (though possibly older since he was clearly drinking) dining on charcuterie at the bar when I first arrived. He was clearly a somebody, based on the attention he was receiving, though I’m fairly certain it was not Flynn McGarry.

Estela * 47 E. Houston St., New York, NY