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Still Summering

I’m almost back in the NYC saddle, after a not-super-food-focused vacation in Portland. Pricey, pop-up sushi was consumed (it was ok–ack, so jaded New Yorker), rural-suburban pizza that was such a hit I went back twice was the sleeper hit, Southern Thai was a charmer, no surprise to me since the city excels at new and shiny but not newfangled Thai food.

cheesecake-factory-dubai

In the mean time, here’s an essay I wrote in defense of dining at chain restaurants abroad for Serious Eats while they were doing a paid experiment on Medium. It was previously un-linkable publicly, and now it’s not.

See You in September

summerThis is usually point in August when everyone starts crowing about the end of summer even though there’s more than a month left and I get all needlessly wound up, except that I haven’t heard that gaffe much this year so maybe 2016 marks the moment in history when people got smart? Or I started tuning out? Maybe they are sweating too hard to notice the calendar counting down.

No matter. I’m just here to say I’m taking a summer break, not simply being more wildly sporadic than usual if anyone even pays attention to such things. I’ll be back sometime in September, definitely while it’s still summer.

 

Eaten, Barely Blogged: French-ish, All-American, Mexican Mash-Ups

mimi trio

Mimi The mark of a good restaurant is one where you leave feeling better than when you arrived (despite young men good-naturedly but firmly asking you to move down six inches so their lady can have more room even though you’re already arm-to-arm with the older-but-not-old man waiting for his lady on your right, being there first [the first customer period to avoid this situation because you know your limits], the isosceles triangle napkin placed by a server establishing your plot of land at the bar). That’s not a lot to ask, though it’s scarcer than it seems. Mimi succeeds. The sliced madai in brown butter with lemon curd and dried seaweed was like candy, or more accurately, caramel corn, fish caramel corn, which sounds dubious but is brightened by the citrus and amazing with nice bread and butter. I would go back and have this as a bar snack with sparkling wine in a second.  Don’t play around with it too much or else the sauce will start to cool and congeal. Peppery calves liver, rare and steak-like, is served with boudin noir-stuffed eggplant, studded with golden raisins, and also blended sweet with savory well, potent and energizing in the same way as the crudo without being heavy, matchingwith a glass of equally bold French red wine that I vowed to remember without taking a photo  and promptly forgot (comped, I realized later, which occasionally is a benefit–at least at a certain type of casual-polished place–of dining on your own) Even approaching fullness, I was never bored.

emmy squared duo

Emmy Squared I forget if this is supposed to be Detroit-inspired or Detroit-style pizza (which I did try last year for the first time in a very different setting i.e. one that doesn’t threaten a $25/per person fee for no-shows because you just show up and eat pizza). The slices are square, the crust thick but not Chicago deep, with crisp edges and plenty of cheese. I will take any excuse to eat Hawaiian variations in an acceptable manner. Here, that would be ham and spiced pineapple on the Lou-Wow. I’m also a sucker for pretzel buns, which hold together Le Big Matt Burger, the formerly semi-secret double-pattied, white american cheese, and sambal-spiked mayonnaise monster that’s now formally on the menu. Split a burger and pizza if possible. Both are good but you’ll probably leave feeling more or less the same as when you entered. 

mission cantina trio

Mission Cantina is as good a spot as any to unintentionally stumble into on a weeknight. The whole operation from service to menu feels haphazard, and that’s not a criticism (though I almost ordered a drink special because it was green until I parsed that it contained  Midori, god no, which the server thought was cucumber liqueur). It’s a perfect place to knock back micheladas and marvel at more fried chicken than would seem imaginable for $26. That would be masa-crusted, spicy, honey-drizzled, and tarted-up with pickles and pickled jalapeños in a vaguely Southern/South of the Border/Korean way. Like pretzel rolls and Hawaiian pizza, I will always order crab rangoon if I see it. There was an undercurrent of what I thought was curry powder in these fried wontons, which you have to be in the mood for, and then the next day while sweating on a walk home it hit me that the abrasive seasoning was likely Old Bay, with celery salt being the offender.  Limey, lightly funky mussel tostadas, chosen instead of a side vegetable that was practically insisted upon, were more guacamole than anything.

 

A to C: The Ice Cream Life

ice cream#sevenfirstjobs mania has really given me a lot of food for thought. Ok, not really at all, but it was good for some really bold A to C fodder like strawberry harvester to editor in chief in three steps (not an actual example).

That’s my segue to trying to figure out why at the end of the August Food & Wine’s regional round-up of ice cream there is a short personal essay from the author of He’s Just Not That Into You. “My Life in Ice Cream”‘ (that’s the name of the piece because it’s about ice cream and her life) wouldn’t have even registered as a blog post. Print, though…such veritas.

A. So, she works at an ice cream shop in the West Village as an NYU student and eats ice cream.

C. She owns an apartment in the West Village and is always on a diet and can’t eat ice cream.

There’s a lot of life between those two things. Though honestly, it doesn’t seem as egregious now as when I read the whole thing at the gym and got outraged. I’m convinced exercising has the opposite effect of its intended purpose (clear-headedness? calming?) on me.

Spoiler: Big Gay Ice Cream opens and she starts eating ice cream.

 

 

Taking the Cake

Two things became readily apparent after pawing through a shoebox of family photos I was recently reunited with.

One: no one took photos of food. At least not intentionally. (I do have a middle-school Christmas shot of me sharing a seat at the table with a bread bowl, one of my summer 2015 obsessions.)

Two: photography skills left a lot to be desired pre-digital. Nearly half were out of focus, the framing dubious, lighting wonky. Delete is now our friend.

The one exception to the food-free subject matter, I discovered, were birthday cakes. I don’t remember anyone ever taking pictures of them, but there they were, at least ten of them spanning from age seven to roughly 20. Because it’s Thursday I’m going to post them all.

monkey cake

Fairly certain this was seven. One of my aunts decorated cakes as a side hustle, or maybe just a hobby? I don’t know. She still exists. I should ask her.

Read more

Agern

threeshovelTwo-and-a-half hours after taking my seat at the counter, early Friday evening (the only one doing so until a Japanese guy with hint of a man bun arrived later and was seated way on the other side of the open prep space), I was glad I didn’t change my reservation for something cooler. My original instinct.

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Sure, high-end dining is a little weird just a few steps down the 42nd Street ramp into Grand Central. More than a couple under-dressed walk-ins looked at at menu at the host stand before leaving But also, and maybe more so, do we need more Nordic-tinged food in NYC in 2016? I wouldn’t say I get excited about nasturtium leaves or nettles and especially not dill. You know there is going to be pine somewhere and pretty borage petals are going to make an appearance. (Sure enough, was seated facing the woman prepping the lavender flowers.) It keeps persisting. Cooler might’ve meant waiting a few days and trying the new Aska. I still haven’t been to Blanca or Semilla, though. No one is giving-up tables for one at Le Coucou or that would’ve been part of my Solo Birthday Dining week. Honestly, I chose Agern in part because I suspected it was good value for a tasting menu. And it really was. $145, service included, for the land and sea menu. With beverage pairings (surprisingly heavy on New York state wines) you’re right at $230. Pricey, obviously, but not to the degree of more established, possibly more luxurious, tastings in the city. You feel good about the time and money spent at the end of the meal.

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The non-table-seated view of Friday rush hour bustle. I watched someone struggle with rolling their wheelchair up the ramp for far too long. I wasn’t staring, but it was in my line of vision and struggled myself to come up with an apt metaphor. There wasn’t one. Just a non-young lady willingly eating algae alone.

agern snacks

You don’t receive any silverware during the series of snacks involving cucumber, fluke, horseradish, pine, celeriac, dill, oyster, awesome fried potato bread, and sweetbread that tastes like a fancy chicken nugget, and ends with a steaming, soft-centered round of dense sourdough cut into four wedges and served with butter whipped with buttermilk, which took me a few to realize was intentional. Lemon balm and cucumber gets distilled into a broth poured into a vessel the size of a Chinese teacup from a French press. And then you are on your way.

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Points given for full loaves for one. So nice that bread is back.

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Oof, I can’t remember the details other than tomatoes that I thought tasted dangerously close to melon were involved, something creamy, roe too, and that it probably could’ve been one-third smaller and have had more impact. It was the first night they were serving this dish and it’s not currently on the menu.

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Beef heart with green strawberries, tiny rounds of grassy asparagus, and dusted with a nettle powder was a stand-out. This was more vegetable than meat and tasted like the color green.

What’s the vibe? Well, kind of formal. There is a lot of staff. I appreciated that the front of house wasn’t hyper-white. My server had just moved from Puerto Rico to work at Agern and was jazzed about foraging and local ingredients but still happy to talk to me about alcapurrias and morcilla. Not the youngest crowd. A twee version of “Teenage Kicks” started playing in that Nouvelle Vague manner. It probably was Nouvelle Vague. (Yes, I wasn’t sure if they still existed.)

agern beets

Then it’s the salt and ash baked beet. It’s quite a production, cracked and carved and extras plated on the side. It’s a lot of beet for one person. The sweet vegetable, paired with huckleberries, is accompanied by a really great chewy rye bread.

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This is when I started getting full and fuzzy. Monkfish and apple…

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The pork neck was rich but a little tough, at least too tough for a butter knife to saw through, but also very bright and vegetal with pea shoots and green beans, plus seaweed crackers, more specifically made from a dulse called söl. This was just about right for the savories to wind down.

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My worst nightmare of a dessert. Cantaloupe (ugh) and cucumber with frozen skyr, lemon balm, and there’s that boarage. Minus the melon (which I realize is my own personal Kryptonite), this was a perfectly nice and refreshing palate cleanser. And then I got worried that maybe it was the main event and not an interim course.

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Phew. We’re still not talking caramel, chocolate, or nuts, but I can deal with strawberries, kombucha, and rose vinegar. Ok, who am I kidding? That’s not a dessert either.

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Candies are more me, earthy or not. Little Play-doh doses of chocolate (Brooklyn chocolate) with anise hyssop, chamomile caramel, mint dusted with ivy powder (yes, ivy).

agern bread duo

You get sent off with a loaf of bread, more of that delicious butter, a tin of jam, which I want to say was apricot and it’s a shame my fruit palate isn’t fully developed. Not quite peachy. Best Saturday morning breakfast really.

Agern * 89 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Color Me Bad: Would You Rather Edition

Would you rather…

#GikLive, designed to let you create your own rules #vinoazul #bluewine #blauwewijn #blauerwein

A photo posted by Gïk Live! Vino Azul (@giklive) on

drink blue wine?

Or blue lattes? (They’re also doing green matcha and black charcoal buns, if that sways you.)

Awesome summer drinks. #witchmojito #thaigreenmilktea #desserts #sugarclub #foodienyc

A photo posted by @colorrainy on

Jk. Neither. Butterfly pea Witch Mojitos 4eva!

Eaten, Barely Blogged: French Schmaltz, Thai Soup, Mexican Sandwiches

sauvage quad

Sauvage is one of those curiosities where you remember looks more than taste even if your photos don’t convey it. And by you, it’s quite possible I mean just me. Light and airy. Windows open to the street. (My first thought was just because everyone speaks French and Spanish on Bedford Avenue, doesn’t mean we’re in Europe. Some of us enjoy A/C.) Where high-waisted jeans in pale washes and Keds look pretty. (Or maybe that’s just how everyone under 30 looks now–the young women working at Pye Boat Noodle, below, had a similar aesthetic plus straw hats encircled by a fat black ribbon). Service was gracious (even though I was given a time-limit on my table for arriving early but reservation-less). How could this pretty (and those coasters) crushed ice cocktail topped with purple petals not be delicious? Ok, with Macvin du Jura, Aveze gentian, and pear, it was, and hard spirit-free refreshing. This delicate quality was also present in the food to lesser effect. Sunchokes with green garlic, sunflower sprouts, and ‘nduja vinaigrette managed to make something with an oily, spicy component neither luscious nor hot and more like the crunchy tubers they were. Pike with so-called mountain vegetables (morels, asparagus, mystery green), and sour beer sabayon was chosen because it was described as the heartier of the two seafood dishes (oh, there was also a fish special that our server seemed very disappointed we didn’t go for), a word I would use more for the pot au feu chicken with skin schmaltz toast, despite chicken fat on bread translating as, yes, delicate. Maybe I’m just losing interest in full meals. I would totally return for cocktails and snacks at the bar if anyone suggested it (though I’m not sure they would).

cemitas el tigre tinga

Cemitas el Tigre I’m kind of jealous that Sunnyside and Woodside gets modern restaurants like Dawa’s and this former Smorgasburg sanwichery now with seats, subway tiles, wood arranged into chevron patterns, and a bar with bottles of Negro Modelo and gose on tap. Jackson Heights never changes no matter how much people who don’t live here seem to think it’s gentrifying. Rent and co-op prices continue creeping-up, and it’s still impenetrably pollo a la brasa, momos, and sports bars. What’s the difference between a Mexican cemita and one meant for a broader clientele? About $1, papalo, and a seeded roll. The thing is, I didn’t really miss that traditional herb’s almost menthol obtrusiveness on this chicken tinga sandwich, hollowed-out roll stuffed with avocado, saucey chipotles, and Oaxacan string cheese. I’m half-ashamed to admit that I pulled 60% of the herb off the last cemita I had a few months ago from El Rico Tinto Bakery. (This might all be moot because Cemitas El Tigre’s menu claims to use papalo and sesame seed rolls. Maybe sometimes they do?)

pye boat noodles

Pye Boat Noodle Ok, it might seem lame to bemoan the loss of nam tok soup a.k.a. boat noodles when there’s a restaurant with the dish in its name a few neighborhoods over. I’m not intrepid as I used to be. Luckily, I had an afternoon to take advantage of the quiet backyard and happy hour beer special in that murky zone between lunch and dinner. (I’ll have to double-check and see if I was charged lunch or dinner prices on the soup–there’s a dollar difference.) A condiment caddy is always a good sign, the cracklings were a nice touch, and the soup itself was rich, complex, just a little livery, yet still buoyant enough for the steamy weather. Astoria, which I’m slowly getting to know, is a small town because the same loud millennial who was making fun of his 40something aunt for getting breast implants the first time I went to Mar’s, also showed up here and I recognized his attention-getting voice before even looking up from my bowl of noodles. Eerily, while typing this District Saigon liked a bunch of my Instagram photos (maybe you should follow me–I’m friendly) which reminded me that’s where I had intended to go this particular afternoon, but it’s one of those closed between lunch and dinner places.

olive garden spaghetti pie

Olive Garden You might think you want pasta formed into a pie (and there are plenty of reputable examples online that I’m not going to link to) but you probably don’t need Olive Garden’s new spaghetti novelty, either Alfredo’d-up with chicken or with tomato sauce and meatballs. No one needs that level of pasta density, unless we’re discussing kugel. Then again, the ramen burger was a runaway hit. I wouldn’t eat that either.

Color Me Bad: USA, USA, USA!

Rambutans. Butterfly pea flowers. Langsat fruit. #rerun

A photo posted by Leela Punyaratabandhu (@shesimmers) on

It never would’ve occurred to me to use my favorite Southeast Asian flower that’s a source of blue food dye in a patriotic American dessert. Genius.

It did occur to me that my favorite Southeast Asian flower that’s a source of blue food dye would start mainstreaming through cocktails. (Wild Hibiscus Flower Company’s, b’Lure, an extract marketed specifically for cocktails, appeared at the Fancy Food Show last year.) . The Times is on it.

It’s a strange sensation to be irrationally possessive of a thing that no one is scrambling to really own. I have this with places and times like late-‘90s Ridgewood and pre-Portlandia Portland, also particular chain restaurants, Sizzler especially, Bonefish Grill too (no one’s fighting me for that one). Ok, so I have a thing for butterfly pea flowers.

blue rice

Achieving those brilliant hues isn’t as easy as it looks, though. My first attempt at dyeing rice for nasi ulam, a Malaysian salad that doesn’t traditionally use blue rice but whatever, resulted in a gray-ish periwinkle batch of grains.

pea flowers soaking

 

The ratio was off. I was winging it. I used a generous handful of dried petals in 1.5 cups of warm water. Next time I’ll use more.

nasi ulam

Like I said, nasi ulam isn’t supposed to be blue anyway. If you want to make one (there’s this), it’s really just an herbed rice salad, which is pretty summery and less gross than pasta salad, and you can use any herbs you’d like because you’re probably not going to find the ones you need in the US anyway. Have at it though, if you have access wild betel leaves, daun kesum/laksa leaves (I’ve seen this in NJ but not NYC), turmeric leaves, and torch bud ginger. At the minimum, I recommend the mint, cilantro, Thai basil trinity. It also includes slivered lime leaves, lemongrass rounds, shallots, and shredded coconut and dried shrimp (pounded afterward) both toasted for deeper flavor and makes it start tasting Malaysian. The belacan, shrimp paste that can really overpower an apartment, ensures that, though not every recipe calls for it and I didn’t use it not because of the small but because I’m lazy. It’s seasoned with salt and sugar. I eat it with Auria’s sambal because I eat that with everything already.

Ok, happy birthday, America!

 

 

 

 

 

Eaten, Barely Blogged: A Bender Just Because

When you post lots of food and drink photos (though who doesn’t anymore?) there is an assumption that you’re always out eating and drinking when in my reality there’s a good deal of cheese and crackers, eggs and bacon, yogurt, seltzer, and other mundanities consumed at home.

dallas bbq pina colada

But when visitors are around who think you’re perpetually having fun, you might have to give them the full eight-hour bender experience, day job be damned. This is now your job. What started out as an innocent lunch break across the street at my favorite regional chain Dallas BBQ (one piña colada) resulted in a two-borough excursion that served to blow the mind (and health) of a long-distance old friend-turned-boyfriend who hadn’t drank for the 25 years leading up to our reconnecting in January. I’m a horrible influence, no question.

jimmy's duo

Jimmy’s Corner (one Sam Adams, two Maker’s on the rocks), not just the best boxing bar in Times Square but possibly the best bar in Times Square period (this is a great recent ode) carried me into oyster happy hour territory but Cull & Pistol, where I was lured by a friend, was too crowded and I wasn’t hungry anyway after ribs and fries, so Corner Bistro minus the burger (two McSorley’s dark ales) became stop #3 for a little anti-Dallas BBQ atmosphere.sea wolf duo

Yet oysters (and two $5 frozen Painkillers) ended up happening anyway at Sea Wolf, the newish beachy restaurant off the Jefferson St. L where getting off the train I came face to face with a coworker whose name I don’t know and initially made me panic since I was being a truant but by 6:30pm I was in the clear. A barely perceptible nod of acknowledgement was sufficient. The point of Bushwick was to hit a few vintage stores, something I haven’t done in decades, and fittingly demonstrate what the Portland of NYC looks like (equally young with free-time during the day, better educated and likely to be secretly wealthy, far dirtier and more industrial, less white, duh).

tomo sushi

By this point, rando sushi seemed like a good idea and a sandwich board on the sidewalk worked its magic. Shared rolls (and a Sapporo) at Tomo just opened the floodgates, though, and Dorito ramen (oops, carbonara) at King Noodle, a few doors down, started seemingly like an even better idea, except I forgot that they had tempered the kitsch a while back and now the menu was more straightforward Asian, slightly SE. Oh, but thank god, and thank you, if you made it this far because the whole point of this exercise is this: ma po tofu fries!

king noodle trio

This is my kind of junk food: melted, processed cheese and fried starch and intensely seasoned ground meat. I love salty soy (fish sauce ideally) with melted cheese and a little (a lot really) heat. Ok, the overriding theme was salt in all the dishes, in an extreme way that was too much in the Spam fried rice and Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce (a nod to health). Maybe not the lemongrass wings, which felt a little wan in comparison, probably because I’d lost all taste for subtlety at this point. (Eaten with coconut porter and a second completely unnecessary beer in a style that I don’t remember since it was the eleventh drink of the day.)

me at king noodle

Drink #10, still going strong. There’s no way to make the neon lighting flattering.

Once you start binging at 1pm, you’ll get tired unless you keep up a steady pace. It may seem dangerous, but the beauty is that you’ll probably make it home by 10pm and get a full eight hours to digest all that sodium, fat, and alcohol and will wake up feeling only sort of like crap (but maybe not at all depending how far from middle-age you might be). To really tempt fate, you can start again the next day but two back-to-back benders is my maximum as a non-young, employed person. Most importantly, I really impressed a now-drinking, self-described Country Mouse (only if you consider Portland’s outskirts country) into boxing, whose going out consists primarily of ramen with his kids, with my fortitude and disregard for work ethics and diet.