Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It's Springtime in Paris...In November

You might think it weird that one of the finer chefs in Paris is an American...even though we don't think it's weird that some of the finest chefs in America have foreign backgrounds as well.

Which brings me to the restaurant Spring. Spring has been ensconced in its fancy 1st Arrondisement address, just off the rue St. Honore, for a couple of years; before that, it was in the less fancy 9th, and that’s where Significant Eater and I first tasted Chef Daniel Rose’s food. Back then, it was an inexpensive 3-course lunch, fairly simple, yet delicious; but you also knew that beneath that simplicity lurked the mind of a chef who knew how to both honor the ingredients he was blessed to work with, and to celebrate them as well.

Neither of us will forget the soup we had back then - thinly sliced raw scallops, nestled in the bottom of a soup bowl with a brunoise of seasonal vegetables, all of it just cooked by the heat of the broth that was then poured over tableside.

Fast forward four years, and we won’t forget the soup we had at lunch last week; a number of country-cut vegetables and a dice of fine ham, warmed by the steaming onion “nage” poured over tableside.  This was no ordinary “nage,” but more like what a perfect French onion soup tastes like, yet the clearest consomme with the deepest flavor imaginable…wow. It didn’t hurt that the garnish included charred baby leek leaves, as it appears Daniel really likes to work with all the different of the onion family, to fine effect...
And then, because chef likes to play with his food, he brought us over the salad course – soup and salad, you see. Only he served this salad of frisee in a bowl made of the most perfectly fried, whole boned fish (merlan) we’d ever tasted.  You can see the “brains” of the fish, but they’re just a grapefruit gelee. The out-of-this-world tartar sauce was hiding under the salad, and Sig Eater and I devoured every bit...
Oh, I forgot - the soup came after the amuse course, simply 4 small plates of  goodies. I don't take notes (radishes with blowfish, butter from Normandy, smoked eel with pickled red onions, apples and creme fraiche and mushrooms with wheat kernels), but...
After the amuse, soup and salad, the main course was perfectly cooked pigeon, served with (iirc) celeriac puree topped with crushed coffee (strangely, it worked), a roasted pear and pigeon jus...
Not fully sated, we had our choice: cheese or go straight to dessert?  Of course we chose cheese - 4 superb samples from the giant display.  Because what better way to prepare for sweets?  For dessert, we enjoyed a fine Greek yogurt sorbet (that's a yogurt skin crisp on top), truffles, and more...
An American in Paris?  You bet. And when his food is as delicious as this, Paris is lucky. Go - if you get lucky, Daniel will be playing with his food.

Spring Restaurant
6, rue Bailleul

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Cafe Katja - Our Local Gem

Five years is a long time in the restaurant business.  As a matter of fact, it's a long time for any small business, and once you get to that point, it means you must be doing something right. Or maybe, just maybe, you're doing everything right.

And that's just what my favorite place does - everything right.  From the warm welcome (whether you're a regular or not), to the tasty food, to the nicely curated wine and beer list (oh, and they make a damn good Manhattan too), to the reasonable prices - Cafe Katja makes me happy...
Just over five years ago, I wrote about Katja on eGullet, after Significant Eater and I tried it for the first time. And over these past five years, and countless meals with Sig Eater, friends and solo, it has never failed to be just what you want from your favorite "local." You want a pretzel (with two spreads) and a beer - Katja...
How about a krainer, kraut and a glass of Grüner Veltliner? Katja...
Maybe beef goulash over spätzle? You guessed it - Katja - and even though I don't have a pic, and they spell it gulasch - here's a recipe from an article about Katja that Bon Appetit ran a few years Austrian, they called it then.

Recently, there's been a big change at Katja. The owners, former chefs Andrew Chase and Erwin Schröttner, had been looking to expand for a while (I mean, if I saw the word tiny in one more review, I was gonna scream), and when the place right next door became available, they jumped on it. So now, after a summer of renovations and turning slightly greyer (well, Erwin was already there) due to the usual problems you run into when you start knocking down walls in 120-year old buildings, and trying to get the gas hooked up by a striking Con Ed, they're up and running on all cylinders. The kitchen, which is probably triple the size of what it used to be, and now has gas burners, was buzzing the other night, Chef James working it as he always has.

An expanded kitchen means an expanded menu, and we started dinner last night with a couple of old standbys. When you start with the pretzel I mentioned above, be careful - otherwise you'll burn your mouth. But the aufschnitt teller, a platter of smoked and cured meats, liverwurst, liptauer, pickles and rye bread, will merely make your mouth water...
My friends shared an assorted sausage sampler (I guess they hadn't had enough sodium yet), which at $15 per person is enough to feed a small army. Me - I'm watching my waist, so I dove into the evening's special - seared blackfish over fermented and sauteed red cabbage, that was perfectly cooked and delicious to boot...
There are classic desserts on the menu, like linzer torte, and lots of schlag to go 'round. And the list of Schnapps is as deep as any in the city. The other night we finished with a couple of Underbergs - because we may indeed be nuts.

Keep it coming, Katja. After a delicious five years, we wish you good luck on the next 10 - for sure, you'll be seeing plenty of us.

Cafe Katja
79 Orchard Street, NYC
(212) 219-9545

Friday, September 28, 2012

Brighton Beach, The Boardwalk and Cafe Glechik

One of the great things about NYC is that, on any given day, you can actually pretend that you live somewhere else.  With upwards of 150 different nationalities sharing our 5 boroughs, a trip somewhere distant may be as quick as a subway ride away.

Take Russia. A few weekends ago, we gathered up the clan and headed out to Brighton Beach, which sits way out at the ass end of Brooklyn, right smack in between Coney Island and Manhattan Beach. Brighton Beach is home to a large population of Russian speakers, many of whom come from Odessa (giving Brighton its nickname, Little Odessa), and the main drag, Brighton Beach Avenue, looks and feels like its right out of central casting (well, other than the el train, I suppose).

Do yourself a favor and start out with a stroll along the boardwalk.  On this sunny Saturday we were lucky enough to witness a chorale group of over 20 people singing Jewish New Year songs while facing the sea; Rosh Hashanah was only a day or two away.  At the venerable Volna and Tatiana Restaurants, with their big, round tables on the boardwalk, groups of middle-aged men (at one table) and women (at another) were merrily downing shots of vodka at 2 in the afternoon.  If you think that bottle of cold water you’re grabbing out of the cooler is water, take a second look – Tatiana’s cooler is full of cold, half-bottles of Stoli, which won’t quench your thirst as much as water, but might make you decide to take your shirt off – as a number of men at that table we were watching had done – and lemme tell you, the shirtless, suspenders over bulging gut look is all the rage in Little Odessa these days...
After our walk, it was time for a late lunch/early dinner and we headed over to Café Glechik, which bills itself as a Ukranian Fusion Kitchen in New York.  Whatever; it’s Ukranian at its core, and a glechik is “a clay jar, jug or crock with something delicious inside.”

Our first glechik came loaded with a huge order of “Siberian” pelmeni, filled with veal, beef, pork and who knows what else, all funk and juice inside…
Vareniki always make a nice accompaniment to pelmeni, especially this order of farmer cheese stuffed ones, served with sour cream for dipping, just in case your cholesterol hasn’t ascended into the stratosphere yet…
Who can go to a Ukranian restaurant and not order stuffed cabbage?  Not me. As one of the ladies at our table commented, probably the best stuffed cabbage she’d ever tasted; this version was far from the often too-sweet versions that showed up when I was a kid…
Making quick work of those appetizers wasn’t really a problem for our group -  I mean, Significant Eater and SMcPickles can really pack it away.  So it was on to our main courses.

Kebab doesn’t quite describe what you’re served when you order from that section of the menu.  Our lamb ribs “kebab” was actually a platter weighted down with luscious and salty grilled lamb ribs, buckwheat kasha better than my grandma ever made, cabbage slaw and plenty of onions…
The “Glechik” stew knocked it out of the park. A big hunk of beef shoulder, braised into fork tenderness, served in its juices with a dozen or more fried potato vareniki, all of it strewn with handfuls of parsley and dill. Wow…
All of this food, along with 3 glasses of beer and a compote (which tastes more like Hawaiian punch than you can imagine) for the driver, came to under $80.  There might be some Russian oligarchs floating around Brighton Beach, who probably spend a lot of money on fancy women, fancy minks, fancy diamonds, fancy cars…and lousy basketball teams – meaning the restaurants had better be a good value.

No trip to Brighton is complete without some shopping. Food shopping, in our case. Even though this is where your lack of language skills might show up, have no fear.  Everyone’s friendly at Net Cost Market (though they might not look it – you know, like my grandfather from Minsk, they’ve got those Soviet genes) and I managed to buy breads, pickles, olives, cheese, sausages and even a tea specifically for my uterus, without a problem. The range of products at Net Cost is fairly amazing; just wandering the aisles is a mini-vacation in itself. 

So listen up…the next time you’re thinking about flying Aeroflot to Moscow, do as they say in Brooklyn and fuggetaboutit. Brighton Beach is so much closer.

3159 Coney Island Avenue
1655 Sheepshead Bay Road
Brooklyn, NY

608 Sheepshead Bay Road
and multiple locations

Friday, September 7, 2012

Arrivederci (already) Summer - oh - Carmela's, Too

I don't know about you, but I'm happy that summer is drawing to a close; both on the calendar and in the air. It's happening and not a minute too soon.  Because? You know, it's been kind of a crappy summer for us, with the low point the passing of a good friend - my cousin Steve.

Also, what is it with every time I go back to where I grew up? Seems like it’s always a sad occasion - the death of an old friend’s parent or maybe even an old friend himself, which happened a couple of year’s ago.

Earlier this summer, one of my childhood friend’s dad passed after one of those all-too-familiar long struggles. There was a funeral and a shiva to attend. A shiva, for those who don’t know, is the Jewish mourning period during which the family in mourning receives visitors. So the day after the funeral another old friend (also, what is it with the old friends?) and I paid a visit to our buddy and his family – at the same house in which he grew up…significantly, a house where we spent a lot of time as kids hanging out, listening to too-loud music, doing a few less than appropriate things, and getting the eye-rolls from knowing parents who let us get away with more than we deserved to.

One of the things I try to do when I go out to my old stomping grounds, maybe in order to balance the sadness with some good memories, is to visit a place that was important and fun to us. A favorite hang out, perhaps.  Interestingly enough, many of those places involved food.

For instance, there was the Lantern, the local 24-hour diner that we boys used to go to late at night, after doing god knows what. Remember the movie Diner? We were like those guys, except no one in our crowd ever ordered their French fries with gravy; I think that's a Baltimore thing.

I digress. My buddy and I had decided, in a NY Minute, that we were going to stop for pizza at one of our favorite childhood pizza places on the way to the shiva call. You have to realize that there were any number of places where you could get damn good pizza back in our hometown of Franklin Square. I mean, the Square was probably 50% Italian, so there better have been. Let's see - there was Poppy’s, on Franklin Avenue and now a Ralph’s Italian Ices, at least sticking somewhat to tradition. There was La Stella, in a shopping center across from “the temple” on Dogwood Avenue, and I don’t have a clue what that is today. That shopping center also had Lox Haven – our own little Russ & Daughters, but with hot dogs, too. Man, those were the days..

But the best, the really best, was the pizza at Carmela’s, on Hempstead Turnpike just east of New Hyde Park Road. It was a classic joint too, with a counter, a couple of tables and a double Bari deck oven – none of that fancy wood or coal burning stuff needed in the Square. And really, it was great. Any time of day or night you could pop in for a slice or two and be supremely satisfied, with the beautifully balanced sweet and tart sauce and just-right-amount of cheese on top of a nicely baked, tasty crust; char was most likely non-existent, because back then everyone would’ve complained that the pie was burnt, wouldn’t they?

Today (or for the last 20 years, I’m told) Carmela’s is triple the size it used to be, with a full service restaurant added to the still existing pizzeria. Since we wanted to relax, restaurant it was. We ordered up a large pie, along with an order of baked clams, something said friend seemingly has to order in any pizzeria that has ‘em, including the places I warn him off of, like Arturo’s, where the pizza is exemplary but the baked clams are incinerated. At Carmela’s, no way – these little necks came out tender and juicy under their crispy, garlicky bread-crumb topping. If Long Island is good for anything, it’s the seafood – from clams to scallops, tuna to blues...
Carmela's Baked Clams
And then the pizza arrived, hot and bubbly, immediately bringing back those taste memories from a long time ago. We smiled knowingly as we tucked in – yeah, it’s still good...
Carmela's Plain
Then we were off to the shiva call – to pay our respect and offer our condolences. Mr. L. put up with a lot from us kids…and he always seemed like a cool pop to us – I mean, the guy drove a freakin' Corvette, for chrissake. From the boys – RIP, Mr L.'s time. Fall. Please.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Steven Richter, 1938- 2012

Last night I lost a great friend, my cousin Steven Richter, who passed away at the too-young age of 74. Steven was my dad’s first cousin, making him, well, my first cousin once removed. But whatever the family tree, we had developed a nice friendship as adults, once I actually met him. You see, I had never known Steven as a kid - he had long ago moved out west, and by the time I was old enough to know my cousins, he was long gone.

It was only after I moved back to New York City in 1994 that we connected and formed a nice sort of kinship. I was coming “back home” after a couple of decades in California; back to New York to attend cooking school and start on a new journey. And fortuitously, there was Steven, unbeknownst to me the partner of long-time food writer and Insatiable Critic Gael Greene, no less. It was through the two of them that I got my first job cooking in a high-class restaurant in Tribeca – and I still don’t know whether to thank them or curse them out!

Whatever the case, Steven and Gael were always gracious and inviting to me, and then to Significant Eater and me once we became a team. We’ll never forget how they invited us, on our first trip to Italy,  into their Venice apartment during one of their multi-month voyages to a far-flung locale; nor how excited Steven was as he took the two of us around and shared his magical Venice with us – Gael even had to remind him to let us have some time alone!

Then there was that trip to Paris one Thanksgiving, while they were staying on the Boulevard Raspail and Significant Eater and I were staying at, let's just say, a less fashionable address. Nevertheless, we all had a fine time, whether wandering through the Musee d’Orsay or dining at a small bistro just off the Boulevard.

And in New York…well, meals too many to count. Adventures too – Steven and me driving out to Coney Island in the middle of the winter to take pictures (and eat pizza at Totonno’s)…his photographs were always special, and I’m still the proud owner, via some fun bartering, of his classic Nikon N-70 camera, though glad I don’t have to schlep that monster around with me any more.

I also became close to another of my cousins via Steven – his son Nico, whom I had never had the pleasure of meeting until Steven and I got to know each other. A Colorado born and raised kid, Nico would visit his dad occasionally and that’s how we connected. Funny how life works that way.

Not much more to say – thanks for the great times and all the memories we’ll cherish, Steven. And rest in peace, my brother.

Read Gael Greene's fabulous tribute to Steven.

Some of Steven's work may be seen here.

Some pix over the years...
Steven and Nico
Steven and Significant Eater
Steven and Mitch
Steven and Eddie S.
Birthday Mid 2000's 
Steven and Nico
At the Met

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Courting Clams (and lobster) on Court Street

Yeah, yeah, it's hot.  But stop your complaining; you don't hear me bitching about the heat or the humidity or the restaurants and bars that like to keep their windows flung open to the street and their air conditioning off during the dog days of summer (nowadays known as June - September), do you?

Instead of all that complaining, you could do what Significant Eater and I did last night and pretend you're at some sandy beach on the shore of Long Island or Cape Cod having a clam bake with a bunch of your friends.

Sure, you could do that at home, especially if you're lucky enough to have a back yard. But in our case, we headed to the unlikely shores of Carroll Gardens, in beautiful Brooklyn, for a Friday night clambake at Court Street Grocers.

Court Street Grocers is the general store cum cafe, which was opened a coupla years ago by two friends after they graduated from art school -  RISD, no less. There's some great stuff on the shelves (Bittermens' Bitters and Luxardo cherries immediately caught my eye), and the sandwiches, prepared foods and baked goods have been lauded far and wide.

But Sig Eater and I were there because I found out that on Friday nights during the summer, they let you wear one of these...

And doesn't Sig Eater look extremely happy?  I mean, she usually is when we're about to eat dinner (or breakfast or lunch, for that matter), but this was gonna be special.  Because we were about to tuck into a beautiful clam bake,  with lobster, clams, corn on the cob, potatoes, sausage, Parker House rolls, drawn butter (and dessert to top it all off).  The clams, littlenecks if I know anything about clams, were sweet and, well, clammy at the same time. The lobsters, which had to weigh at least a pound and a half, were perfectly cooked and full of the sea; not an easy trick when cooking up a big batch all at once. The corn was sweet and juicy, the sausage a bit funky and the potatoes and rolls brought the right amount of starch to our table.

Amazingly, this dinner comes to you for $35 a person, tax (but not tip) included.  And it's BYOB, making it an even better deal...we brought along a big bottle of Doc's Cider, refreshing and crisp for an apertif, and a dry Spanish rosé to go with dinner - it hit the spot.

Go?  I don't know what you're waiting for.  They do Friday night dinners year round, and the clam bake for at least the next couple of weeks.  I don't think there's a better deal south of the Cape. Oh yeah...the air conditioning was just fine!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Shrimp, Grits and Corn Off the Cob

There’s an old saying that the farmer’s used: Knee-high by Fourth of July, and back when I was a farmer, we’d often say that when we planted our corn in anticipation of a good season.

Okay, I’m not a farmer and never have been one (although I did have a backyard garden for a few years in Cali), but I still like the saying...but this year I sympathize for many farmers around the country, whose crops are suffering due to the stifling heat and the lack of rain – and don’t get me started on global warming kids.

It just so happens to be fresh corn season at NYC’s farm markets, and I’ve had some great luck with sweet corn this year…maybe it’s the heat, the rain, the lack of rain – I don’t really know, but all the corn I’ve bought so far has been super sweet, crisp, juicy and delicious, and I guess the farmers in the northeast are having better luck than those in the parched Midwest...

 I love corn on the cob, slathered with butter and salt and pepper, or perhaps a squeeze of lime and a shake of chili powder (but hold the mayo, please). It’s quintessentially summer, and whether you boil, steam, grill or roast your corn, you can’t go wrong – as long as you don’t overcook it. I mean, fresh corn is so tasty that you can eat it raw, but if you’re like most people, you’ll want to give it a bit of heat – and I never steam or boil it for more than 3 minutes. On the grill, you’ll go a little longer, because some browning adds a great complexity to that corny goodness.

The other day I came home from the market with a bag of corn, and Significant Eater was at the dining table working, so I figured I’d make the corn easier to eat, since corn on the cob can be a bit messy. I also had some stone-ground white-corn grits in the fridge (you keep that stuff in the fridge, don’t you?), so I decided to make corn on corn – and then some.

While the grits were sputtering away, I shucked a few ears of corn and removed the kernels with a paring knife – and no, you don’t need a special tool for this, just cut the ears in half and stand them up on the cut ends for the de-kerneling (a word I just made up)...
I also "diced" some market zucchini and onions into the size of a giant corn kernel, and started cooking. In a sauté pan with a tablespoon or two of butter, I cooked the zuke and onions first, just until they were translucent…
Then I added the corn and as I said above I only cooked the corn for another 3 minutes or so; it was still nice and crisp, if that’s the right word. If you’re worried about your sauté burning, just add a couple of splashes of water to the pan.

The sauté was done at the same time as the grits; the grits got a good, healthy grating of parmesan, freshly ground black pepper and a spoonful of butter stirred in – because, really, that’s what grits need.

I wasn’t done though. I also happened to have half a dozen large, frozen wild shrimp in the deep-freeze – and yeah, wild shrimp is all I buy and all you should buy too…shrimp farming fucks up the environment pretty badly, so do your part, even though they’re hard to find.

The shrimp were briefly brined, about 15 minutes or so, rinsed and dried well, and pan-fried for a minute or two on each side. Significant Eater was ready and so was lunch…shrimp and grits, with corn off the cob…

Shrimp and Grits with Corn Off the Cob

¾ cup stone-ground grits – water to cook
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
2 T butter 
salt & pepper to taste 

2 ears of corn, shucked and kernels removed 
1 cup diced zucchini 
½ cup diced sweet onion 
2 T butter 
salt & pepper to taste 

6-8  large, wild caught shrimp

Make grits according to package directions and then follow the method above.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Back to Work

Whew - that was a pretty good hiatus. But now it's time to get back to work. Yeah, yeah - I know what you're thinking... back to work? But you don't even have a freakin' job! OK - I got it.

In any event, I'm back to whatever it is that I do. June turned into a little bit of a stress-case month, and I certainly haven't done a lot of cooking over the past 4 weeks, which means not a lot of shopping either. It's hot out and it's hot in our kitchen, and if I was cooking in there, I'd be complaining, wouldn't I?

Oh, there were a few salads that were made and eaten for lunch...when Significant Eater was here in NYC and really working. Here's a version of Nicoise which I like to make...
One day I made these for breakfast...
Which came out great, btw. I also bought this...
Admittedly, it became a bit of an obsession for a while. Now, it's become a great way to get to and from the farmer's market and various other shopping destinations.

There's been plenty of dining out, including a return trip to Jack's Wife Freda, where the zucchini "chips" were awesome. I still believe the frying skills here are unmatched in the city...
And back to Mission Chinese Food New York, which is civilized, with nary a wait - at lunch. And where the newish catfish dish practically explodes...
And the chilled buckwheat noodles are perfect on a sweltering day...
So you see, it's not all fun and games around here. There's more food to report on. There's cold stuff to "cook" and sorbets and gelati to churn. There's even some complaining to do - it's too bloody hot, to be honest.

Like I said, vacation's over.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Right On 'Cue

First, lemme get this out of the way: I hate crowds. I know, I seems kind of silly that Significant Eater and I live in NYC if I hate crowds so much. Maybe I'm just cranky and think that I hate crowds; or maybe I'm just much more tolerant than I think I am and I really like crowds? Yeah, right.

So, what's with all this stuff about crowds? Well, this past weekend brought us the 10th anniversary of the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party (hereinafter known as the BABBQBP, because that's so much easier to type). This barbecue festival, which brings together close to 20 BBQ pitmasters from around the country, helps to raise funds for the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which is, imo, a great cause.

It also brings, you guessed it, the crowds. Remember - 10 years ago the BABBQBP was a quiet little could literally wait 5 minutes and you'd be sampling some fine 'cue. And then, like everything that's happened to anything food-ish over the past 10 years, the sucker exploded like Guy Fieri's ego. It's money, if you get my drift.

I think we've attended every BABBQBP since its inception and it gets crazier and crowded-er every year. Of course, the marketing geniuses figured out that they could sell a "Fast Pass," which allows the holder to bypass the lines and theoretically get served more quickly. But they sell so many of the damn "fast passes" that the lines for fast pass holders end up being just as long as the lines for the plebes...and basically it's a sucker's game.

OK - now that I've gotten most of my gripes out of the way, I do have to say we tasted some mighty fine 'cue this year. One of our new favorites was the whole hog bar-b-que from Scott's Bar-B-Que in Henderson, South Carolina; the smoky pig served up with a side of crispy skin and some tasty sauce. As this picture proves, BBQ ain't easy...

We also took a liking to the smoked sausage from Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q, a chain based out of Birmingham, Alabama...their spicy hot link was crisp, juicy and absolutely delicious, served up with a side of everyone's favorite...pimento cheese and Saltines...

On the rib end of things, we bypassed our usual favorite, Memphis Championship Barbecue, and instead tried the St. Louis style (a real sparerib, not a wimpy baby-back) ribs from Checkered Pig, in Danville, Virginia, a worthy endeavor even though I like my ribs sans sauce. 

In addition to the 'cue, there's music, and it just so happened that 2 performers whom I've actually paid money to see were performing for free on the festival's main stage. On Saturday, we got to see and hear Jon Langford...

And on Sunday, Alejandro Escovedo closed out the party...

To prove that I'm not just a grump, Madison Square Park is beautiful and its location offers stupendous views of a few iconic NYC buildings. For example, there's this...

And perhaps my favorite building in this whole city...

So come to think of it (other than the crowds), it's not that bad. I mean, sure - waiting on endless lines can be a drag. And squeezing by sweaty mooks gnawing on ribs isn't that much fun. But hey, it's NYC after all - deal with it...just like I did and will continue to do. See y'all next year at the BABBQBP - I hear it's the 11th anniversary.

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