Tuesday, March 31, 2015

In California, A is For...Carciofi

Artichokes. California artichokes. Coming into their peak season now, though they're available all year long, the artichoke is a favorite vegetable of mine. It's a favorite vegetable of Significant Eater's.  If we could be any place right now, eating artichokes, it would be...well, to be honest, it would be Rome. I mean, how can you resist Roman carciofi alla Giudia?
Carciofi alla Giudia at Sora Margharita
Or carciofi alla Romana?
Carciofi alla Romana at Armando al Pantheon
You can't, can you? But if you can't be in Rome, what to do? Well, there's always California - and that's where Significant Eater and I spent a few nights last week, celebrating a birthday and an anniversary, with a short get-away to San Francisco.

On our first full day, we hopped into our rental and took a drive along the coast, one of our favorite things to do. A mere hour away from the city (in either direction, actually), and you're practically in another era (if you stay on the coast, that is; otherwise, you're in Silicon fucking Valley). On this day, we headed south - Pescadero was our destination, and this was our objective...
California artichoke growing behind Duarte's
The California artichoke. California grows literally all of our artichokes, and the main growing areas are along the coast, with Castroville, in Monterey County, the center of it all...as a matter of fact, Castroville calls itself the "artichoke center of the world" (though Romans will argue, 'cause they'll argue about everything). And that's enough info.

In Pescadero, there's a 100+ year-old restaurant called Duarte's Tavern, and their specialty, Sig Eater's favorite, and the reason we took the drive, is cream of artichoke soup...
Duarte's Tavern's Cream of Artichoke Soup
I used to make a mean cream of artichoke soup. I also used to be able to get nice, meaty artichokes at 3 for $1...so making soup was thrifty. Now, at $3, $4 or $5 a pop, I like my artichokes to provide more fun - and even to last a little longer. For instance, I found these beauties last week at Whole Foods, for $3 each...
Big-ass California artichokes
And I made steamed artichokes, because that's also how we like 'em. You see those little thorns at the end of each leaf? They hurt - be careful when, well - just be careful. Pick off the crappy leaves, then cut a bit off the bottom; the stem is edible once peeled - don't waste it. Cut off the top, about an inch or two down - use a serrated knife - it's easier. Trim each leaf with a good kitchen scissors. Rinse well and turn upside down to drain. When you're done, they should look like...
Trimmed artichokes
I like to stuff thin slices of garlic in between the leaves before steaming - a good dozen or so per choke. Then they get stood up in a steamer, sprinkled with salt, drizzled with olive oil, and steamed until tender. No, I don't know how long it'll take, but if you can pull a leaf out easily, that usually means they're done. You can also slide a paring knife into the base of the artichoke - if it meets little resistance, done. For serving to loved ones, and even those you like just a little, it's nice to take the choke out. Do I have to describe how to do that - it's a pain in the ass, but a grapefruit spoon works well.

There, you're all done. Oh - you'll also need a nice dipping sauce for the leaves and the heart  - here I'm serving them with a nice lemon and Spanish Pimentón aioli. Better known as Hellmann's mayo with lemon juice and smoked Spanish paprika all stirred together - it works.
Steamed artichokes with dip
What are you waiting for, a trip to Rome? Go on - steam an artichoke now!

Steamed Artichokes - A Recipe

As many artichokes as people. Then, read the post above.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hail WASSAiL

I've been complaining (yeah, yeah, I know - what a surprise), about the lack of places to drink good ciders in New York City, for quite some time. Sure - I know there are a few places, each offering a few ciders, around town. There's Huertas, on 1st Avenue; Donostia, on Avenue B; and, you know, maybe some others that I'm either forgetting - or never even knew about in the first place.

Oh, there is also a place in Astoria, that I'd heard/read about over the years, called The Queens Kickshaw - and it easily had the deepest cider list of all - but...Astoria? I mean, we like to occasionally take the drive out to Astoria, hit a Greek supermarket, maybe one of the classic old school Greek restaurants, but it's not exactly in our regular rotation. And I'm certainly not driving there if I'm going to be getting my drink on - I stopped that shit years ago.

So imagine how great it was to read about The Queens Kickshaws' owners going about opening a place on the lower east side - literally a 10-minute walk away. The wait seemed never-ending; the first story I read about it was last August, quoting an opening date sometime around January, 2015 (but we know how that usually goes).

And then there was breathless coverage on all those, you know, food sites. And word-of-mouth. And an invitation to the "soft-opening," via a connected friend (we weren't able to attend). And then finally, this week, WASSAiL opened! Immediately, Significant Eater and I happily found ourselves 2 seats at the bar, right next to another happily ensconced old friend.

I will never complain again. OK - I will never complain about not having a cider bar in New York City again.  Because WASSAiL is the cider bar of my dreams. With somewhere between 80 and 100 ciders available, including about a dozen on draught and a bunch more by the glass out of bottles, I'm a little worried about spending more time here than I should.

About the cider - way more than I could've hoped for. Looking at this list, it's obvious I've got a lot to learn. About the space - really nice.  About the staff - from the owners, to the bartenders, to the manager, to the hosts - pleasant, professional, and excited about sharing their knowledge of cider. About the food - haven't tried any yet, but I think cider matches up wonderfully with food. In California last week, we drank some fine Oregon cider with oysters, and it was a perfect match. About the location - Orchard Street. Orchard - get it?!

We tried Craigies, which was a little locker-roomie, even for me. Nicol. Millstone - tart and delicious. Pacory Poire. Jurancon Sec. And Trabanco. Significant Eater even had a Stone Fence, which is usually a shot of rum in a glass of cider - almost a boilermaker, basically. (Here is David Wondrich's perfect description of How to Make a Stone Fence.) Her's was a shot of rye. And she liked it just fine.

Heading back - ASAP. And, if you like cider just a wee bit, you should too. Watch out though - we just might be sitting at the bar.

WASSAiL Millstone Cider.

WASSAil - 162 Orchard St., NYC  (646) 918-6835

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Cosme

What's better than writing a blog post on the same day as the NY Times' review hits the internets? Either it shows that I sort of know a little bit about something, or that I know absolutely nothing about, well, everything. 

By sheer coincidence, we ate at Cosme last night. Now, I pretty much know next to nothing about Mexican food; I only know what I think tastes good  - and what I like to eat. So the scallop and jicama aguachile was great...
Scallop Aguachile - look at that brunoise!
And we inhaled the seafood stuffed avocado, though I thought it tasted like nothing so much as a classic shrimp cocktail - unsurprising, since its sauce is composed of ketchup and horseradish...
Stuffed avocado - seafood vuelve a la vida.
There's an interesting dichotomy between those two plates, as the stuffed avo is quite rustic, whereas the scallop dish had a brunoise of cucumber so perfect, it brought back sweaty memories of cooking school, although brunoise was nowhere near as annoying as tournée.

And yes, Pete, those tortillas are fine, especially wrapped around the barbacoa of mushrooms and squash, with hoja santa providing a great, complex flavor profile - I counted maybe a half-dozen types of mushrooms, some barely there, they were so tiny...
Mushroom and squash barbacoa.
Significant Eater, due to her many years spent in the desert southwest, had to have the purple corn pozole with pork jowl...and who am I to argue - she gave it a mighty thumbs up...
Purple corn pozole with pork jowl.
By the way, the guacamole to snack on at the start is pretty good, though Sig Eater proclaimed my home-made version to be better.  

Dessert, of course, had to be the by-now famous husk meringue with corn mousse.  Strange stuff to this Jewish guy from Long Island - and strangely good.

This much I also know- we liked the room, where you actually have some personal space, and the service was gracious and knowledgeable. The one cocktail we tried was the Expat Martini; it was chintzy, it was served in a ridiculous glass, and it failed to come with the advertised house pickled tomatillo. See for yourself...
Chintzy Expat Martini Sans Tomatillo.
There are a number of wines by the glass, a bunch of beer, both on draught and by the bottle or can, and a deep wines-by-the-bottle list. That'll be nice to explore, because after I do some research about the foods of Mexico, we're sure to head back.

Cosme - 35 E. 21st St., NYC

Monday, January 19, 2015

Sacre Blue, Smoke

It'd been a while since we'd been to Blue Smoke, and even longer since we'd been to the original, flagship, first, whatever, Blue Smoke, on 27th Street, in the Flatiron neighborhood.  I think our last visit was to the Blue Smoke located in Battery Park City, and that was some time ago. But this past weekend, we attended a birthday party for one of Significant Eater's cousins, which was thrown at Blue Smoke #1; a nice, small party, 30-40 people, in the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon.

If you don't know Blue Smoke, suffice to say it was among the first of the big barbecue restaurants in NYC (and yeah, Virgil's, in Times Square, predated it). There were smaller operators back in the day - I recall a great place out in Long Island  City, called Pearson's Texas BBQ, but bbq had always been but a blip on the NYC restaurant radar.  Enter Danny Meyer, Union Square Hospitality Group, and The Big Apple BBQ Block Party, which brings BBQ specialists from all over the country to Madison Square Park and its environs every June - this year will be the 13th year for the block party - it started the same year that Blue Smoke opened.

In its earliest days, Blue Smoke was uneven. They had to learn how to use the smokers, compounded with the scrubbers, which were a necessary evil due to NYC's, well, smoke and fire laws. This isn't exactly bbqing on a Weber in your backyard - something I love to do, even though I lack both a Weber and a backyard. But every once in a while at Blue Smoke, you'd get a great rib, or a hunk of wonderful smoked pork, and all would be good with the world.

Of course, once a place is successful in NYC, many places open offering similar stuff. Bbq became a "trend," and places popped up everywhere. Some are quite good; some, not so much. Pitmasters come and go - you know the story. As a matter of fact, a while ago Blue Smoke's original pitmaster, partner and co-founder of the BBQ Block Party, Kenny Callaghan, left the organization.

So where would they head? Well, from the food we ate at the birthday party, it appears they're headed in a fine direction.  The new Executive Chef is Jean-Paul Bourgeois, and that's a great name, no? The menu has been condensed a bit - there used to be a bunch of different rib styles...they're no longer there, and that's just fine with me. Because most everything we got to taste made us think we have to come back more often.

Roasted oysters were delicious, not too much topping, allowing the flavor of the oyster to shine through, touched by smoke. On the half shell, these same oysters were well-shucked, fresh and briny. I've always had a soft-spot for the chipotle chicken wings at Blue Smoke (well, wings anywhere) - these are still great. I tasted the kale salad, but don't know why. On the other hand, the gem lettuce and citrus salad was fine, as were the cornbread, deviled eggs and assorted sides like brussels sprouts slaw and butter beans with bacon.

Of course, the star of the show is 'cue, and based on the 'cue Sig Eater and I tried on our recent trip to Nashville, I'll take Blue Smoke's any day. I'm not a huge fan of bbq chicken - I've never had one that was transcendent. And maybe the brisket here could use a touch more smoke, but I'll leave that to the Texas 'cue experts. All I know is that the rack of ribs that was placed on our end of the table was just great. Smoky, tender and just chewy enough from the right amount of time spent hanging out with smoke and heat, these ribs could hold their own with the best I've eaten. And for this alone, we 'll be heading back to Blue Smoke soon...or at least as soon as we need our next bbq fix.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Man With a Mission, Take 2

I was gonna make this pun about a man (Chef Danny Bowien) with a mission, figuring I could tie it to the Elvis Costello song Everyday I Write the Book. Of course you know that song - it has a line which goes: "I'm a man with a mission, in 2 or 3 editions..."

But googling that phrase, it turns out that not only is there a band named Man With a Mission, but everyone from Van Halen to Hall & Oates has used that damn lyric, in one way, shape or form. 

So no pun. And minimal backstory. Because if you don't know the backstory about Mission Chinese Food New York, you've either never read Eater (good for you!) or any of a million other publications which talk food in NYC, or you just don't give a shit (good for you again, I guess). 

Last night, Significant Eater and I ate at the new Mission Chinese Food New York, for the second time since its opening in late December, and last night we had a friend with us, so we were able to sample even more of the menu.

Now, I come to the new MCFNY with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, since its location was the home to a restaurant I really liked (Rosette), with a chef I really like (Nick Curtin). Nick's now cooking in Copenhagen, and Rosette's now just a memory, and I'm not saying a word about that lyric.

I'd rather just remember the delicious food 3 of us consumed last night, and 2 of us had consumed 2 weeks earlier. Cause delicious it was - from a redefined classic or two originally served on Orchard St., to a lamb riblet special that was just great...even though it looked like a Cantonese fried fish when it was brought over to the table.  Instead, it's a portion of rib that contains the chine bone,  and instead of using it for stock, it's braised, roasted, and then deep fried; served with a freshly baked, smoky and puffy flat bread from the wood-burning oven (passed down from Rosette), the idea is to pull off a chunk of lamb, wrap it in the bread, and slather it with a tzatziki like sauce. And then go - holy shit, lamb gyros!

Kung Pao Pastrami (one of those redefined classics) is now stir-fried with home fried potatoes as the starch (did it have rice cakes before? I don't remember); potatoes work, and remind me that pastrami and eggs were a great diner staple way back when - and they were always served with home fries. Squid-ink peanut noodles are dense, chewy and funky. There are oat noodles and wheat noodles on offer as well, but since we'd all had oatmeal for breakfast, we went with the more dinner-like pasta. Turnip cakes? I don't like turnip cakes - but for some reason - I liked these. We repeated the green papaya salad, because its vinegary zip is a perfect foil for these rich, spicy flavors.

So, you got any problems? Yeah, of course I do. There's absolutely no coursing of the order, which the kitchen "likes to get all at once." And evidently they like to send the order out "all at once." So the juggling we had to do at our table was a bit comical at times, since drink glasses, water glasses, plates, and dishes loaded down with food all don't fit on a 24" square table with 3 people sitting at it. I think they can do better with this. The cocktails I've tried don't move me, but that could be because I'm a cocktail snob. I love ciders, so I'd like to see a few more American ciders, those which aren't sugar bombs, on the list.

But I've got solutions to all this.  Right next door is the 169 Bar, where a cheap drink can be had beforehand. And I'll only order 2 or 3 dishes from now on; I figure if I'm still hungry, they'll let me order some more...it's still a restaurant, after all. And since it's right down the street from us, I greedily hope (unlike its short-lived predecessor) it's here for a long time. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Zabar's, Lox, and a Tribute To A Great Slicer

Yesterday, a friend of mine, founder of The New York Minute, alerted me to a video about Len Berk, an 84-year old Jewish lox-slicer at Zabar's. The video (by Martyna Starosta) is part of a wonderfully written article in the online Jewish Daily Forward; its writer: Paul Berger.

Zabar's is a beloved institution on NYC's upper west side. From caviar to chocolate, Mauviel to multiplanes, if you need something for the kitchen, or for the stomach, it can usually be found at Zabar's.

But really, when push comes to shove, Zabar's is all about the lox; smoked salmon, that is, in its myriad styles and tastes. Oh, there's whitefish, sable, herring and even sturgeon. If you look (and listen) hard enough, there's even lobster...just don't tell your kosher grandfather.

I used to slice lox when I was a kid. One of my first jobs was in the deli department (I know, I know - it's appetizing!) of a Long Island supermarket chain, Hills. They would send me around to various stores to fill-in when a store was short-staffed, or when a new store was opening.  I really learned about lox in the Five Towns; specifically, the Cedarhurst Hills, which had a real appetizing department, and I was pretty good with a salmon knife...but I'd be no match for Len.  Glory Days, baby.

Nostalgia over - so stop kibbitzing, and watch the video from Vimeo and the Jewish Daily Forward, about just what it means to slice lox at Zabar's. And to be the last of a breed.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sleigh Bells Ring, Are You Listening?

Geez, it's been a long time. Stuff happens. Actually, a lot of stuff happened over the past 2 months. A little of this. A little of that. And I plan on relating all, most, some of it - over future blog posts.

But for now - let's just look back (to last night) and enjoy the first snowfall of the season. And along with that snowfall, the first snowmen of the season.  And, the tiniest, too...

Orchard St. Snowman #1
Orchard St. Snowman #2. Excited to be here, obviously.
Orchard St. Snowmen
Oh, Katja was great too - but what else is new?