Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On a Mission at Mission Chinese Food

Last night was "opening" night, and a friend and I were lucky enough to score a pair of seats at Mission Chinese Food, after a nominal 20 minute wait, at the ungodly dinner hour of 6:30; normally, we're drinking at that time - and aren't you?  Whatever; here we were, greeted warmly by the host and hostess (Anna and Aubrey), and invited to share a celebratory beer while we waited for our seats to become available.  Quite festive...

Mission Chinese Food, for those who have either been Rip Van Winkle-ing or who don't check Huff Po, Eater, Twitter, obsessively every 10 minutes of their life, is the New York City outpost of, ummmm, Mission Chinese Food.  Except that one's in San Francisco, and it opened as a pop-up inside an already existing Chinese restaurant called Lung Shan, on Mission St.

The brainchild of Chef Danny Bowien and partner Anthony Myint, SF's MCF took the food world by storm, and ever since it became clear that Orchard Street and the lower east side would become the home of the 2nd Mission Chinese, NYC's been all atwitter (hmmm) with anticipation.

All well and good.  It's not like there aren't 100,000 Chinese restaurants here already; it's just that most of them suck. I've gone into that before and don't need to go into it again right now, but anyone trying to do the right thing with a great cuisine is OK in my book.  And a quick chat outside with Chef (who might indeed be TV ready, looking all California-cool in his white chef's jacket, white shorts, baseball cap, hipster glasses and flowing tresses) led me to believe that he's very excited to be on this beautiful block of Orchard Street, dealing with some of NYC's fine purveyors both at the high-end (that meat guy) and the ones that supply Chinatown with a vast selection of greens and other goodies.  As a matter of fact, he was simply qvelling when telling me how great some of the prices are here compared to SF - and take that, SF!

The team has also taken what was home to a few less-than-successful fooderies over the years and turned it into a nice, fun space that feels bigger than it really is.  I liked the atmosphere, and there are even backs on all of the chairs, which is good for the altacockers like my buddy and me.

I ordered way too much food, but what the heck?  The sharp tang of Chinkiang vinegar, heat from chili pepper and buzzy numbness from Szechuan peppercorns is thankfully not dumbed down, at least not in any of the dishes we tried. So, for instance, the Chili Pickled Turnips and Long Beans blow open the taste buds but are impossible to stop eating.  As are the Beijing Vinegar Peanuts, meant to be eaten one at a time with chopsticks - order these immediately, so you can eat them with your beer.

Lamb Cheek Dumplings in Red Oil are explosive...and good.

The Tea Smoked Eel was a favorite of ours; it's wrapped in cheung fun, a rice noodle made on the spot at a few places around Chinatown; as a matter of fact, my very first blog post was about this type of noodle, made around the corner at Sun Light Bakery!

I think my favorite dish last night was the Mouth Watering Chicken, a chicken "terrine" with dry-spiced chicken hearts and vegetable "noodles."  The hearts are cooked medium-rare, lending them a unique flavor and tenderness, and the breast is nice and moist. They hit it out of the park on this dish...

Was everything perfect?  Hell no...I would've liked a little less salt (or saltiness in whatever form) in the Broccoli Beef Cheek with Smoked Oyster Sauce, impossibly tender beef nestled under a bed of some sort of Asian broccoli.  But it's oyster sauce and that stuff is, shall we say, saline (and I ate all the cheek anyway).

So - when am I going back?  As a matter of fact, I've already made a reservation for this coming Sunday night. They're taking reservations, but only for the bar seats at this point. Otherwise, it's all walk-in.  And delivery. And lunch soon.

Orchard Street sure has been looking better and better; now with Mission Chinese Food hitting the street running on all cylinders, it's gotten that much more tasty.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Noble Experiment at Experimental Cocktail Club

The other night, a friend and I paid our first visit to the recently opened Experimental Cocktail Club, a branch of the cocktail lounge that first took Paris by storm in 2007 (and was followed with an ECC in London).

ECC is in the old Kush space. Kush was a lounge that I was never fortunate enough to set foot in - or, looking at it another way, fortunate enough to never set foot in. What's interesting is that the Paris ECC was modeled after the new wave of cocktail lounges that were opening here during the first decade of the '00s, and now NYC's ECC looks like the type of lounge you might expect to find in Paris. If you think this is confusing, it's not - our ECC is absolutely gorgeous inside, designed by the wife of one of the owners; lots of French flea market finds, and I wish my living room looked as nice as this. My pictures do not do it justice...

The back bar is quite nice...

And the glassware is really pretty, at least for now (because y'all know what happens when the stems start breaking)...

Pictured above was my first cocktail, called Black Heart,  a Joseph Akhavan creation at La Conserverie in Paris, and it's made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Cynar, Luxardo Maraschino, a touch of French Roast Coffee, Bitterman's Boston Bittahs, a Laphroaig rinse and orange oils. A real winner, balanced as can be. My drinking companion started with the L'Américain: artichoke infused NP Sweet Vermouth, toasted walnut infused Campari, thyme water, orange oils - all of which is carbonated and bottled and served like this...

That'll be perfect for when the kids pour in on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and can't hold a glass. The drink is damn good, though it probably can use, and probably will get (see below), some heavier carbonation.

I followed up with a classic Manhattan, and it was nice to be asked by my bartender Aaron whether I wanted a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio; I'm a classicist, so my 2:1 Rittenhouse Manhattan, with a twist, was just how I like it. My buddy moved on to a drink called The Artist: Drouin Calvados, verjus, pear and apple cider shrub, Peychaud's, Didier Meuzard Ratafia, Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe and Billecart-Salmon Champagne to top it all off - wowser.

Many of the drinks are creations of bar manager Nicolas de Soto, a Frenchman who now lives most of the time just off of Avenue B. Some of you may have seen him behind the stick occasionally at Dram - I know I had. Nicolas' drinks are pretty complex, with lots of infusions, but as I said above, balanced and delicious. He'll be working the bar here some nights, and overseeing the show all the time - a true gentleman who is as nice as can be.

Okay, okay - we did have a third round; after all, we were checking the place out. By this point, the place was filling up, and Xavier was working our end of one of two bars. He's a 7-year alumnus of Daniel, and quite the pro. So, the appropriately named The Last One: Cardinal Mendoza Brandy, Bonal Gentiane, Cocchi Barolo Chinato and Akanono carrot Shochu. Simple, and practically an aperitif, no? And the Curious Prescription, a tequila/mezcal lover's dream: Pueblo Viejo Reposado, Pukhart Pear Eau-de-Vie, La Cigarerra Manzanilla Sherry, housemade salted mezcal caramel syrup, lime juice and Bittermen's Habanero bitters.

In order to continue establishing a relationship with the bartender(s), something everyone should do, I had to return on another night, especially since a friend and I were practically around the corner at a gallery opening.

I might've found a new favorite cocktail, as the Noblesse Oblige was the first drink I tried on this second visit. Cognac based, with both Pedro Ximenez and Del Maguey as sidekicks, it's another one of Nicolas' fine, fine cocktails. It'll probably stay on the menu, though he did say that he finds people here shying away from Cognac cocktails, which I think is a big mistake; cognac cocktails rock, in my opinion.

My friend started off with the Black Heart and immediately pronounced it his "new favorite drink." He also tried the L'Américain, the drink served in the bottle and pictured above; they've got the carbonation level up to where it should be now, making the drink that much tastier.

I wanted to start experimenting a little, though the bartenders are not heading off-menu much at this point, trying to learn the complex cocktails on the menu; however Aaron was kind enough to mix me up a perfect Vieux Carré.

Food will be coming soon from what I hear; bar snacks will be supplied by The Fat Radish, another one of my neighborhood faves.

I expected, and have heard from Nicolas, that ECC has already been  packed on the weekends...and will continue to be so. Doesn't matter to me, though - we rarely go out for drinks on Friday or Saturday nights - and if we do, it'll be earlier than the throngs. Though since I've yet to explore with Significant Eater, I have a feeling we might end up here later this week.

And finally, here's a tip to all the Cosmo drinkers out there - if you want cranberry juice in your drinks, go soon. From what I've heard, it won't be available for long and if it stays on the menu, you may be paying a pretty premium for it. Instead, have a real cocktail made by people that know what they're doing.  You'll thank me, and them, for it.  

By the way, there was a complimentary drink or two along the way. YMMV.

Experimental Cocktail Club
191 Chrystie Street, NYC

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Tree Grows...Near Brooklyn

A couple of weeks ago, I emailed what I guess one might call a complaint, to our fair city's  311 is the response center, set up (I think) during Mike Bloomberg's first term as mayor, which (I think) was in the 1890s.

311's purpose mission is:
311's mission is to provide the public with quick, easy access to all New York City government services and information while maintaining the highest possible level of customer service.
Nice and helpful, don't you think? Anyway, what bugged me was this:
A big, fat hole in the ground, on East Broadway, right next to the beautiful and historic Seward Park and Seward Park Library. Walk by it on a near-daily basis.                                                                                    
Of course, dealing with any bureaucracy, let alone NYC's, is a nightmare.  And that's why I had to do a double-take, when, less than 2 weeks later...
How's that for government efficiency? Well, let's not go so crazy here, because this was also on that same stretch of East Broadway...
Now, it's just filled in with cement.  Perhaps during the next Bloomberg administration?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

In Like a Lion...Out Like a Lamb

March was kind of a doozy for me.  For much of the month I (along with a small army of volunteers) was involved in the planning and execution of a number of events for the Int’l. Association of Culinary Professionals, the worldwide association of food people (sorry, I don’t like the term foodies) which held its 2012 conference in NYC.  Every year’s is in a different city; 2011’s was in Austin, TX and next year’s is in San Francisco.  But this year was NYC’s turn to host, and Judith Klinger of Aroma Cucina fame, a friend on mine who sits on the board of directors as well as being this year’s host city chairwoman, asked if I’d like to “volunteer.”  She knows me well – knows how much I like to work and even more how much I like to work for no pay.  

All kidding aside, the event was a smashing success and I look forward to “volunteering” in the future (if Jude can find me). My "job" this year involved my friend Jeff A. (husband of said chairwoman) and me planning, organizing and executing a number of events for groups of conference attendees during their down, or non-conference scheduled, time. These were called optional events. 

One of the optional events that Jeff and I planned was a Lower East Side Jewish historical culinary tour…and that’s a mouthful.  This involved Jeff and me meeting, at the ungodly hour of 9 AM, with 20 or so people at the hotel where the conference was being held in midtown Manhattan, many of whom were arriving that morning, and then schlepping those same folks downtown to our first stop. Now when I say schlepping, I mean I had never had the pleasure of leading a group that size, many of whom had never been to New York before, onto the subway for the trip; it was like a Marx Brothers’ movie. Just getting them all through the turnstiles was a regular riot. 

Of course when your first stop is here...

You rush to be on time. And once there, we were not only treated to smoked salmon on mini bagels, their incomparable whitefish salad (known in some circles as crack salad) and pickled herring, but an even greater treat – that of being given an historical perspective of Russ & Daughters and the neighborhood by none other than a 3rd generation Russ, Mr. Mark Russ Federman, a real mensch. Oh, and that’s also where we met our special tour guest, Ruth Reichl (another mensch!) – who was along to offer her insight (and to nosh!). Needless to say, it was (both the food and the schmooze) a real smash with our guests.  Take a look at just a small sampling of what's on offer at Russ and Daughters...

From Russ, we moved on to the Tenement Museum, where a guided tour awaited our group…and if you’re planning a visit to NYC and have never been to this particular museum – GO! The history contained within that small building on Orchard St. is amazing – over 6,000 people lived there at one time or another, and the blood, sweat and tears they suffered so that their kids could have a better life is sure to move you.  

On and on we went…to the Pickle Guys and their “Borscht-Belt” humor; as a matter of fact, they were grating fresh horseradish for Passover and everyone’s sinuses get a good cleaning.  Here's our group clamoring for pickles...

To Kossar’s Bialys, where we got to taste bialys, bulkas and pletzels, along with a lesson on the difference between a bialy and a bagel; you don’t know?  You’ll have to visit...

And then back up to Houston St. and the final stop on our tour: Katz’s Delicatessen, where another dozen or so people (including the food science writer Shirley Corriher and her husband) were awaiting our group and…lunch! This part of the tour was billed as lunch with Ruth Reichl, and Ruth’s charm, wit and knowledge enthralled the group…at one point, I wanted tell everyone to leave her alone to enjoy her pastrami; by the way, Ruth and I conspiratorially ordered some “moist” (the good stuff) pastrami, which we smilingly wolfed down…

I mean, if you’re gonna eat pastrami, what’s with the lean?  While at Katz’s we were also treated to a nice talk by one of its owners, Alan Dell; he talked and we ate!  

And posed for a photo with Ruth and his son Jake...

As lunch wound down, Jeff and I enjoyed a celebratory Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda.  And then we hopped on the subway to head back to the hotel.  After that amazing morning, we had another group to meet for an afternoon tour; our day was far from over…and the conference was just beginning.