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? 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Locavore, Schmocavore


Everyone talks locavore.

You know, eat locally.

Support your local farmers.

Eat sustainably.

Be eco-conscious.

Only take what you are going to use.

Be good to the planet.

The whole nine yards.

That's why it warmed my heart, when walking up East Broadway yesterday, I spotted this local farmer fisherman...
Locavore Fisherman
As you can tell, Mr. Fisherman cares about the environment. I mean, he bicycles to and from his fishing hole, right? Very little carbon footprint, no? And his product is special...
Product
Of course, I don't know that fish from the East River is what you want to be eating these days (pregnant women beware). And I don't know if it's legal to sell your catch from the East River, on East Broadway, out of a bucket.

But - it's locavore, so what the fuck?  And - at least Mr. Fisherman was nice enough to toss his cigarette before serving you. Rules, you know...
Look ma - no  cig!
Fresh, local fish - Various locations around Chinatown, often East Broadway, Grand St., etc.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Marta, My Dear

Whew - that was a long time off (not that I need time off, but my brain cells needed it). And anyway, it's not like Significant Eater and I have been starving ourselves...actually, we've been eating plenty, drinking maybe not quite as much, and, in general, waiting for the summer to end. I'm always waiting for summer to end, btw - since the complaining about air conditioning gets old. Although, really, it was kind of hard for me to complain this past summer, since it was fairly mellow, what with global warming climate change and all that.

So - of all the meals, what were the latest and greatest? Let me start with Marta...the newest (unless they've opened another Shake Shack in the last few weeks) entry from Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group, helmed by Chef Nick Anderer, who also happens to be the chef at another USHG favorite of ours, Maialino.

Marta is the Anderer and Meyer take on the Roman pizzeria; of course, if you were to ask a group of Romans what Roman pizza is, you'd probably start an argument, just like what would happen if you asked a group of New Yorkers the same question. There's the thin, thin, thin and really crispy crust. There's the (usually) long, beautiful flatbread (generally eaten at room temp, sometimes topped, sometimes not) known as pizza bianca. There's Gabrielle Bonci's unique and brilliant Pizzarium, serving pizza al taglio, or by the slice...and you get to pick how big a slice you want. You see - it's not easy - but the nice thing is, there's generally something for everyone. American expat Roman food experts, people like Katie Parla, Elizabeth Minchilli, Maureen Fant, et. al., have all written about Roman pizza. I've probably gotten recommendations from each of them about where to have pizza in Rome. Some were spot on - some not so - at least to my taste (then again, I've given some recommendations that people have thought sucked, so...).

Maybe it's better to divide the pizza wars into two types of places. There's the Pizzarium style (al taglio), where you get a slice or two or three and eat it, generally while standing up. And there's the sit-down place (pizzeria), where you order at table and get a whole pie or two or three, and eat it while at table. At these types of places, there is other food to order in addition to pizza, and if you've gotten this far, that's what Marta is all about.

A week or so ago, Significant Eater and I were lucky enough to be able to join two friends who had scored a reservation at Marta, which isn't exactly an easy task. The menu, with the type of food we love...
Where to start?  Both the suppli and the croquette showed a deft hand at the fryer, and the rabbit meatballs might be a gateway drug leading to coniglio. Though Sig Eater has had her fill of octopus (which is on every damn menu in town), I liked the charred and tender tentacles.

Of course, Marta is a pizzeria first, and it now sets the standard for this style of Roman pizza. I think it easily could hold its own in Rome...
That's the Margherita, but we also sampled the fiori di zucca (zucchini flower, mozzarella and anchovy - yes, please) and, compliments of the chef, the patate alla gricia, a pizza topped with potatoes and the stuff you'd top pasta alla gricia with. Make that guanciale, pecorino and pepper. Spicy, funky and not your mother's Rays, if you get my drift.

Sure, sure, we'd had enough food. But, not knowing when we'd get back, a couple of entrees were "necessary..."
In the foreground - the funghi arrosti, delicious, juicy, meaty mushrooms that can (almost) make one forget about, well, meat. They're served atop a really cool vegetable, that I first saw at the Union Square green market. It's called spigarello, and it's one of the many variants of broccoli raab,  perhaps a little less bitter, though bitter is one of my favorite tastes. Behind the 'shrooms - the beer brined half chicken, another gift from the chef, another winner from the oven. There are those who will probably mention that the chicken is salty, but hey - it's brined, and that's what happens.

Is it possible that we were too stuffed for dessert? Well, yeah, but there are some nice Amari - always a good way to end a big meal like this. (OK, we did share a few scoops of gelato).

Tariff?  Depends on how much you eat, my dear. But I suppose one could get out fairly reasonably; two of the apps were $6 (the suppli and the crochette) and the Margherita comes in at $12. Cocktails are between $10 and $14, wines run the gamut. Not cheap, but not crazy expensive, either.

Another plus - they have these...
And who doesn't love a place with matches?

Can't get yourself to Rome any time soon? Marta (and its older sibling, Maialino) have got you covered. Buon appetito.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Russ & Daughters Cafe - Teach Your Children Well

Everyone knows the story of Russ & Daughters, the 100+ year old appetizing store on Houston Street in New York City, right? And everyone knows what appetizing is, right?  And everyone knows how to pronounce Houston Street, right? Oy - where do I begin?

To start, read the story of Russ & Daughters in Mark Russ Federman's book, Russ & Daughters: The House That Herring Built. Mark is a 3rd generation Russ, whose grandfather Joel started the business over a hundred years ago, from a pushcart on the lower east side.  Here's the timeline. Mark is also a hell of a nice guy, and always with the stories, if you know what I mean.

Next - appetizing.  Or, to put it better, an appetizing store. Appetizing, according to that great Yiddish website Wikipedia, is the food that one normally eats with bagels. Typically, one eats these foods for breakfast or lunch. So what you'll find in an appetizing store is stuff like lox, smoked salmon, herring, cream cheese, etc. And what you won't find in an appetizing store is stuff like pastrami, corned beef, tongue, salami, etc. You want that - walk down the block to Katz's - it's a delicatessen. Oh yeah, it's also on Houston St. - and no,  it's not pronounced like the city in Texas, heathens.

So where am I going with all this? Simple - around the corner and down the block to the newly opened Russ & Daughters Cafe, at 127 Orchard Street. It only took a hundred years, but Russ & Daughters has finally expanded, with a sit-down cafe, nu - and we're all the better for it. Fourth generation cousins Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper are in charge here, and if it's possible for Russ & Daughters to be a schtickle better, they've accomplished just that.

At the cafe, you'll find wonderful house-made sodas and cocktails, though I'm not one to drink booze with my bagels. I had some sort of cucumber-y thing, which was perfect on a hot summer afternoon, and my California friends (one's an ex-NYer) loved their chocolate egg-cream and matzo ball soup. We also thought these potato knishes were the real deal...
Knishes
I went back with Significant Eater a few days later, because, well, once she knew I had been, you know the rest of the story. We had no problem enjoying this ice-cold borscht on a sultry afternoon...
Borscht
And these potato latkes were (almost) as good as mine...
Latkes
Now you'll notice I didn't have any smoked salmon, lox, herring - those goodies which make Russ & Daughters famous.  That's because I eat them all the time, at home, with Significant Eater - I'm a Russ junkie, and as anyone knows, that whitefish salad is addictive.

But if you've never been to Russ & Daughters (the appetizers), you don't know what you're missing. I realize that can be hard to do if you don't live in town or you're just here for a visit. But now that there's a cafe a block or two away, your worries are over. Just do me a favor - don't wait 100 years. And Niki and Josh - mazel tov. I'm sure great-grandpa Joel is smiling down on Orchard Street.