Monday, December 29, 2008

Roberta's pizza in Bushwick

Priya and I were planning to have a sedate brunch at home last Sunday, but then Katie called and suggested brunch at Roberta's, a pizzeria in Bushwick run by some friends. Brunch at a pizzeria? Weird, but sounds good, so we went.

The place was pretty empty, and a friend was waitressing, so we got individual attention as pizzas slowly came out, one by one. We had an appetizer salad involving La Tur cheese and apples, and we split an order of French toast as another appetizer... I wish I'd taken a picture, but you get like four small slices, looks like they're cut from a baguette, soaked in syrup and butter. Nice.

It was weird getting coffee with pizza, but not so much when I ordered the guanciale (pig jowl) and egg pizza. Absolutely delicious for dinner, and even better as a brunch item. The yolk runs all over and you sop it up with cheesy, saucy pizza--mixed with the tomato sauce, it's almost like shakshuka--yum!

There were a bunch of new special pizzas being rolled out, and due to a kitchen error we got to try all of the ones we wanted! One amazing one was the finocchio, with a copious amount of sweet caramelized fennel atop:

Also, this one (called "The Good Girl") had sausage, taleggio cheese, and kale. The greens were perfectly crisped:

We also got to try some scrambled eggs with oysters poached in red wine--delicious!

Iron Chef

it's been a couple of weeks, I know.

this year, my school repeated our annual "Iron Chef" staff/faculty holiday party...we all go to the Spanish teacher's AMAZING apartment in Chelsea (her husband is the dean of NYU's law school, so they gave him two of their apartments and knocked out the wall between them, so she has a single room entertaining space that is literally larger than the footprint of my parents' house in CT...) and bring stuff we've cooked and eat and hang out and get judged.

This year, it seemed like the competitiveness went a little overboard, and I really disagreed with the selection of the "theme ingredient". Instead of a handful of ingredients to choose from, the Powers That Be declared that the theme this year was "regional cooking". Regions would be randomly assigned to the four teams (of 9th-, 10th-, 11th-, 12th-grade teachers) and we'd have to cook within our region.

It was basically the opposite of Iron Chef. The point of Iron Chef is that everybody has a specialty, and you can make that specialty apply to whatever theme ingredients you are assigned. With this new way, your specialty was thrown out the window. So if somebody was an amazing Spanish cook, they might get assigned Korean food, and if someone was focused on Indian food they might get assigned to do European food...blah.

Because there was so much complaining, the Powers That Be allowed people to draw twice and keep whichever they chose. In the end, our four regions were: American, American Regional (Southern), Mediterranean, and Latin American. Basically, the four most boring regions, stuff we eat all the time anyway. Sure, there might be a Chinese food specialist on your team, but most of the team couldn't cook that, so better to go with American, eh?

Anyway, we drew Mediterranean, so I made chicken marsala with Priya. We made it a couple of days early and had a nice chicken marsala dinner ourselves before fridging it. I think it came out great, among the best it's ever come out--very tender and delicious. With roasted-garlic bread, Caesar salad, and capellini:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

French Onion Soup and chicken/lentils/sausage

I got this idea that I was going to make onion soup--I really enjoy it, and I only ever have it when it's a big production with the Gruyere and the crouton and whatnot, and while that's fine, I realized I've never made it simply because I don't want to deal with all that. So fine, forget all the accoutrements--let's make onion soup.

I based it on Alton Brown's onion soup recipe, with some notable changes--first, I used around 32 oz of each type of liquid, not 10z, wanting to make a huge tank so I could bring it for lunch this week and still be able to freeze a bunch. I also had to make some sleazy "I don't have that" substitutions--dried thyme and bay leaves instead of a bouquet of fresh herbs, beef broth instead of beef consomme, shitty generic "apple cider" (which tasted like apple juice) instead of cloudy Lyman Orchards awesome cider...

I used my mandoline to slice an enormous bowlful of Vidalias and then spent the next HOUR browning them sufficiently. Once that was done, the soup itself was easy and fast. I transferred it from my Dutch oven to my stockpot after deglazing so I could add even more liquid (and make more soup!).

It was quite delicious, but arguably too sweet--next time I'll add about half the apple cider and maybe use some red onions mixed with the Vidalias. (I also think the sweetness was enhanced by the fact that it didn't have the cheese or bread in it cutting the sugaryness).

Needing a quick and easy main dish that didn't clash with bread+soup, I determined I wanted to use up the chicken breasts I had in the fridge, and also somehow make use of a mirepoix (I had just bought a bunch of carrots and celery). I browned some hot sausage in my Dutch oven and then browned chunks of chicken breast (sprinkled with paprika and za'atar) in the fat + some olive oil. Removing the meat, I threw in the mirepoix and sauteed til translucent; then I stirred in a bunch of French green lentils, added garlic and chicken broth, returned the meat to the pot, brought to a simmer, and let cook until the lentils and meat were done. It was pretty good for an off-the-cuff meal!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Onion burger

I saw some nice grass-fed super-organic ground beef at a good price at the co-op on Saturday and thought a burger might be nice for dinner; on the advice of Simon (de Montreal; see links bar), I went with an onion burger (I had giant sacks of onions sitting around waiting for me to slice up for mujadarra for PACEgiving).

pretty easy to do: cut a big, thick slice of onion from the center of the onion and put it in a little oil in a hot pan (obviously, grilling would be better, but that wasn't an option).

when it's cooked a bit, flip the onion over. then mash a ball of ground beef down onto it, making sure it's fairly thin right over where the onion is.

Put a lid on it so it cooks more thoroughly.

after a bit, flip it; the onion will be embedded into the beef, steamed in beef vapors and fried sweet and delicious.

eat with cheese, ketchup, not much else. I thinly sliced some sweet potatoes and covered 'em with za'atar and olive oil and made baked sweet potato "chips/fries" in the oven to go along with the onion burger. I also made a quick red cabbage coleslaw with dill, cider vinegar, and olive oil and some steamed broccoli.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Dinner party at Ahmad's

on Saturday night, we made our way up to Washington Heights for a dinner party at Ahmad's. while the company was the best part, the food was damn good, too.

Priya brought butternet squash roasted with grapes & pinenuts. it had cooked for so long the red grapes had become almost like white raisins, and the onions had virtually disappeared into the dish. it was very sweet, pretty mushy, and quite delicious. the toasted pinenuts on top added a necessary crunch/saltiness to balance the dish out.

I made Brussels sprouts in bacon fat and garlic. I'd disliked Brussels sprouts for years because of my experiences with them as a kid, but a few years ago saw a tasty-looking, super-easy recipe and decided to try them out. I liked it enough that I've made it a bunch. basically, you cut the sprouts in half and then brown the flat sides in bacon fat (I cut up a piece of salt pork into little cubes and cooked them in a little water until I had a nice pool of fat in my Dutch oven for this purpose). also brown some big pieces of garlic. then, put plenty of black pepper on the whole thing and add some chicken broth and let it simmer until the sprouts are done and most of the liquid is gone.

Ahmad made pork chops with a dark cherry & fig sauce, baked in individual foil packets with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. really good stuff, marinated overnight before he cooked them, nice chew...every dish complemented the other dishes, with the sweet spices of the pork working really well with the squash flavors and the sprouts forming a counterpoint to all the sweetness.

(not to leave out Sirin and Jonathan--they brought wine)

I think I would like to make this exact meal again for myself sometime.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Ling Kee beef jerky

Whilst walking down Canal street the other day, I passed a tiny, mostly empty-looking store that had a single glass-fronted counter that appeared to contain only beef jerky under heatlamps. I guess there are a few of these Chinese jerky stores around. Today, after a nice 2-hour lunch, Wooh and I stopped by Ling Kee Beef Jerky for an after-lunch snack.

Unlike American jerky, Chinese jerky appears to be both moist and warm. Big squares of pork, chicken, and beef jerky were stacked under heatlamps, and more was grilling in the back. Spicy versions of each were available as well.

We were just sampling, so I got a quarter pound of pork, and Wooh got a quarter pound of beef. Kind of pricey--around $4 for a quarter-pound. In retrospect, I guess it's not that bad for what you get. I couldn't finish my QP; maybe if I hadn't eaten lunch...

The pork was very sweet, like BBQ pork ribs from a Chinese restaurant--excellent! Wooh's beef was a little sweet, too--Wooh thought too much so. I liked it, though.

I'll be back here from time to time, I think.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Night potluck

so, Christina and I had a little election night potluck dinner, and though it swelled beyond its original parameters, it was great and fun and there was plenty of food and, of course, Obama rounded out the night with a victory for us!

pictures are crappy due to the rushed nature of the thing, but oh well.

first, Priya made butternut squash lasagna. layer of ricotta, layer of baked squash + butter-fried sage, layer of pasta, cheese all over...stripes of white and orange, delicious autumn taste! everyone loves it--clean plates!

I made simple mujadarra, using my mandoline and armored glove to slice 4 hgue onions and some shallots and cooking them til brown in my dutch oven with some cinnamon sticks before adding brown lentils and water, simmering a bit, and then adding rice and cooking til done. super easy, nice proteiny rice dish.

Priya also made an AMAZING Obama cake, which we ate to give Obama good vibes as we waited for Ohio results to roll in (it worked!).

ALSO, Priya made a beet salad of roasted beet wedges, chunks of avocado, and a dressing of chopping shallots, pistachios, orange juice, oil, and pepper. simple and really good.

Eugene and Christina made delicious crostini covered with super-thin slices of broiled beef and bacon, with a bit of fresh parsley to give it that green taste. (Some added horseradish cream; I avoided that mayonnaisey mess and was perfectly happy).

Katie brought over her awesome meatloaf, made with her homemade ketchup, which was gone in moments.

Lauren and Bill brought a green salad with avocado and yellow tomatoes.

Sara brought olive bread.

Lena brought some bubbly, which we toasted with as Obama was declared the winner later.

Brina brought home-made applesauce with white raisins--yum!

For snacks we had edamame, cranberries, tamari almonds, cheddar cheese, hummus and carrots, mini chocolate mushrooms from Japan, and a whole host of drinkables.

lovely potluck! good thing my friends all know how to cook.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Wah Ji Pork Chop shop

Wooh spotted a new pork chop shop on Allen Street right near our school, so we had a lunch date on Monday to check it out (Wah Ji Pork Chop Fast Food at 7 Allen Street).

The restaurant was very small, very clean, and completely empty when we entered. New wooden counters, nothing dingy, and two very nice ladies behind the counter.

I got the basic: pork chop over rice ($4). Wooh gave it a bit of a twist by getting the black pepper pork chop over rice (also $4). We saw them lift the chops out of marinade and dip them straight into the fryer. Within a couple of minutes they were served up to us over generous helpings of rice and a scattering of chopped preserved vegetable.

The chops themselves were huge and meaty, with a fine band of fat but not so much that it eclipsed the meat--I was definitely surprised by how they weren't just the standard Chinatown piece o' fat you'd normally get. The flavor was also delicious. Wooh thought his black pepper sauce was good, but a bit too sweet and preferred mine, and while I liked them both, I preferred mine, too--the flavor of the pork was really brought out by the marinade, which had a complex array of flavors (star anise? coriander? cinnamon? not sure).

also, for $2, I got a popcorn chicken appetizer which was a very nice surprise--sizeable, actual strips of chicken (not just Chickie-Knobs (tm) of who knows what), with crispy friend basil leaves. The chicken excited Wooh the most--he said next time he'd just get that plus a scallion pancake for a quick, light lunch.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Super Taste Lanzhou noodles

Before the Kayo Dot/Pelican show, Priya and Sam and I scooted southward to Super Taste for some cheap food. With some winding and weaving, we also met up with two of Sam's friends, who were visiting NYC and seemed a bit trepidatious about the hole-in-the-wall nature of the place. They were game, however, and I was glad we didn't go to Eastern Noodle (which has no menu to speak of--Super Taste has a English menu with extensive options ranging from Lanzhou noodles to vermicelli noodles).

we all got Lanzhou noodles and, for $6, split 20 pork dumplings for the table. they were boiled rather than fried and absolutely delicious--an extremely juicy but not too oily pork-and-chive inside, nice squishy pasta on the outside, and a sweet soy sauce for dipping. I got the spicy beef Lanzhou noodles and found them to be basically the beef noodles with hot red chili oil liberally poured over the top layer--quite good, and quite spicy. I didn't get to try the pork Lanzhou noodles, but they looked pretty good. Priya's egg Lanzhou noodles were a bit of a disappointment--I had been envisioning a raw egg cracked into the boiling broth and poached on the spot, like in bibimbap, but this simply had a fried egg dumped into the broth.

Still a very good meal, and so so cheap. like 7 bucks each including tax and tip.

Monday, October 13, 2008

birthday dinner #4: Vidalia

for the weekend following my birthday, my parents took me down to D.C., where we went to the Spy Museum and the Newseum and other lovely tourist attractions. on Saturday night, they took me to dinner at Vidalia (after much decision-making, which featured my dad discovering and reading a bunch of reviews of restaurants we were considering and declaring, "These people are awfully mean!").

The menu at Vidalia featured at least two dozen things I really wanted to try. However, their five-course tasting menu was only doable if the whole table partook, and neither of my parents were really into it, so we just ordered a la carte. (Probably a good idea in retrospect--the portions were small enough that the half-portions you got with the tasting menu would have been microscopic).

a little courtesy-of-the-chef appetizer: butternut squash soup in a shot glass, very salty, not the sweet nutmeggy flavor you'd expect. also, cauliflower panna cotta topped with salmon roe; the texture of the panna cotta was very different than other panna cottas I've had, almost like a block of firm tofu...and the cauliflower gave it a strange, savory flavor that was interesting (although I don't know if I could eat more than a small cube of it, even though I love cauliflower).

To start, I had Southern-fried frogs' legs with Path Valley toasted cornmeal polenta, sweet garlic, hen o’ the woods mushrooms and parsley butter. I got three legs, each battered and deep-fried larger than golfballs. My parents had never had frogs' legs before shamefacedly admitted that, as per the cliche, they "tasted like chicken." I'd only had them cooked in garlic butter before, not breaded, and I thought they were pretty chickeny--although very unsalty, strangely. I think the flavor of frogs' legs is a bit better than dark-meat chicken, truthfully, and I do enjoy the idea of eating frogs.

My dad had a wild mushroom ragout (he pronounced it "ragout" to the waiter, to general amusement--sorry, Dad) with country ham, chive biscuits and creamy black pepper gravy. I think Dad might've been expecting a big hearty serving of biscuits 'n' gravy, but instead he got a haute cusine, perfectly arranged platelet of bizarre mushrooms with some shreds of biscuit and ham. It tasted delicious, though, and he cleaned his plate with gusto.

My mother, seeking something salad-y (there seemed to be no greens on the menu), got a mosaic of Path Valley Farm tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella, olive crumble, bouqueron anchovies, verbena gelée and lime-basil emulsion. It had a bit of a "structural problem" on the way to the table and had to be quickly fixed by the server. Essentially, there were four separate types of tomatoes with different treatments of each, arranged separated on a square plate and scattered with cubes of clear verbena gelee. One tomato was fire-roasted and stuffed with anchovies; there was a pile of pea-sized sweet tomatoes mixed with olive bits; an especially cheesy-tasting buffalo mozzarella was sandwiched between golden tomato slices; etc. She didn't like the fishy anchovies inside the charred tomato skin, but I thought it was among the best on the dish.

For my entree, I chose the Stoltzfus farm shoat stuffed with sage-fennel sausage and toasted oats with smoked wild huckleberry jam and braised fennel branch. This arrived sliced into a handful of coin-sized discs, each comprised of a medallion of sausage wrapped with baby pig fat and flesh. The dark, chewy oats underneath were extremely salty and soaked with pork fat. With the huckleberry jam, this was quite delicious. I had two issues, though: firstly, I would've preferred less sausage and more pig in each piece, and secondly there were, randomly, whole peanuts inserted into the roll. I think I found two in the whole meal. Not knowing they'd be there, I thought they were chunks of gristle at first and was a bit disgusted until I figured out they were peanuts. If they were to include peanuts for texture, I'd recommend roughly ground nuts more evenly spread through the dish.

My father got shrimp 'n' grits with house-made andouille sausage and sweet onion ravigote. The shrimp arrived with heads, bodies, and feet intact, and that caused them to retain a singularly shrimpy flavor that beheaded shrimp can't quite match. I would've preferred more grits--they were more like a plating addition than part of the dish, I thought--but the dish worked very well as a whole.

My mom ordered the northern Michigan walleye, which had a confusing array of side dishes (we actually received different menus claiming it came with different things, so I guess they change 'em up frequently). The walleye slab was lightly breaded and fried oh-so-delicately--I can't even imagine how they picked it up to plate without destroying the fragile crust. very, very good.

then dessert. we split 2 desserts. first, the warm chocolate cake donut holes rolled in peanut brittle and chocolate fondant with mocha semifreddo. it sounds better than it was, I thought--the donuts weren't greasy and squishy and fried enough, ending up kind of like stale donut holes. good flavor combinations, but...

the second was one my dad had had his eye on from the first moment: a georgia pecan pie with bourbon-caramel ice cream. this was the better dessert by a long shot, and clearly something Dad had been waiting for, so I didn't eat too much of it.

I really enjoyed the meal, and the food was very good-looking and -tasting (despite the junky cameraphone pictures in the dim light). a great birthday meal!

birthday dinner #3: Del Posto

since Priya's family was around on my actual birthday, we went for our own version of my birthday dinner a few days later. Knowing just what I like, Priya arranged for us to eat at Del Posto! (the enoteca, of course).

I got there a little bit early and had a Scotch while I waited for Priya. It cost $16! She arrived and we went to our table and immediately a woman appeared with a tray to carry my Scotch to the table on. The table was twelve feet away. Okay. Not exactly my kind of restaurant experience, but fun for a birthday. I hoped the food would stack up. (No pictures, sadly, due to the dim light).

The menu was very simple--no fancy descriptions, no crazy foods, but four or five simple meats, a few simple appetizers, etc--prix fixe.

We ordered octopus all Griglia and calamari fritti to start with. The octopus was hacked into chunks that resembled large pieces of lobster or crab leg more than slimy tentacles. Each chunk was grilled with some dark char marks here and there. Astoundingly, it wasn't rubbery in the slightest--the pieces even had a texture similar to lobster chunks, and an amazing flavor that far surpassed octopus I've had previously. I think it takes an expert hand to grill it just right so it achieves such a great flavor and yet remains unrubbery--Del Posto could not have improved on it. The calamri was likewise at the top of its game, with an impossibly light fried crust. The calamari was tangy with lemon and, again, had no trace of rubberiness.

for our primi, we got pennette con cavolfiori (cauliflower, one of my favourites) and garganelli al ragu Bolognese. the cauliflower pasta was delicious, a very different flavor than I'd expect at an Italian restaurant (Priya asked our Italian waiter where it was from, and after a moment's confusion during which he thought she was asking HIS village, we were told it was from nowhere, from here). The garganelli itself was a dark green, looking almost like shiny small leaves folded up on themselves, but had a surprisingly fresh taste, not starchy and wheaty like darker green pastas often do. And the ragu covering it was delicious; I'm glad we got a more traditional dish to accompany the more experimental cauliflower one. I found myself chasing the bits of meat around my plate to get every last bite, and (true to Batali's hectoring) there was no sauce to sop up--they had put on the perfect amount to coat every noodle and no more.

for our secundi, I got the pork arista and Priya got another traditional Italian (-American) dish--veal Marsala. Both were done very, very simply; my pork was a fat chop, cooked quite rare, that had a delicious deep flavor and somehow maintained its juiciness even on the more charred side. The cooks here must be very well-trained, because between the pork and the octopus, they know the precise temperatures and times to make the dishes perfect every time. Priya's veal Marsala was very good, but I think I prefer my own crappier but more democratic version, with mushrooms and supermarket Marsala wine. Del Posto's version was very well done, very fancy, with medallions of veal in a perfect sauce, but I preferred my pork.

before dessert, our friend Dan (who works in the kitchen) sent us out a palate-cleaning cup of Concord grape/olive oil sorbet, which was fantastic. I thought it might even surpass the olive oil gelato I'd had at Otto last year. While olive oil ice cream sounds gross, it actually works perfectly, and the olive plus tart Concord grape taste were synergistic--quite a rare gem.

then dessert came. Instead of ordering, though, I was surprised with a candle burning in a birthday panna cotta! it was coconut-flavored and very rich, and was scattered with pulpy-sweet pineapple chunks--quite delicious.

before we left, we popped in to see Dan, and my God if the kitchen isn't a stressful pace. Dan appeared to say hello, but he seemed charged up, and his eyes kept darting over to the food he'd left, and we quickly sent him back to his miz after thanking him.

when all was said and done, I thought that the food was worth every ounce of praise it had received. Despite the somewhat overly fancy atmosphere, the quality of the actual dinner made it one of the better meals I've ever had. and it didn't cost me a dime! Thank you, Priya!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Taqueria Coatzingo

Priya had access to her parents' car for a few days, and since I had Yom Kippur off from work, we decided to make use of it to get dinner somewhere far, far away. Priya had done some research, and after looking at a couple of menus, we chose Taqueria Coatzingo on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.

The restaurant's decor was brusque and functional, like a diner or pizza shop, and scattered with 10 or 12 other diners when we entered (two of them, young Latinos drinking beers, were seated on the same side of a four-person table, facing the entrance; they didn't seem gay, and they were more guido-clubby than gangbangy, so we could only assume that they were scoping out girls who entered...ignorant of the fact that their seating posture seemed to indicate that they were a couple). The menu was pretty extensive, and we were absorbed by enough choices to mostly forget about the specials.

Remembering the amazing pork huarache I'd had in Red Hook a couple of years ago, I ordered one of those, topped with "salt beef" (cecina), for $7.50 (50 cents cheaper than the other place we'd looked at. It was pretty good, but the huarache part itself couldn't match the naan-like grilled version from the ballfields. I liked the cecina, and there was a nicely spicy sauce, thuogh a bit too much iceberg piled on top for my taste.

For 2 bucks more, I also ordered a tripe taco (almost got the steamed tongue, but I've had that elsewhere and liked it--I've never had tripe before). We expected the tripe to be slimy and woobly, but it was fried crisp and tasted a lot like bacon (with a few slimy/woobly parts). I liked it a lot, and for 2 bucks? good deal.

Priya, of course, got mole enchiladas, chicken and cheese. The mole was pretty good--very very fruity, not overpoweringly ch9colate--and the beans were nice, too. The rice, unfortunately, seemed to be made with canned green beans and carrots mixed into it.

to drink, I had an horchata (quite good, very sweet, served no-frills in a paper soda cup), and we also enjoyed the very good, spicy salsa that came with the table (although too many of the fresh-fried tortilla chips were inedible due to grease). unfortunately, it was $3 for more chips/salsa, so we didn't get another basket when we were done.

for dessert, we walked into the South Asian section of Jackson Heights and got some sweets at a sweet shop. they turned out to be a lot more expensive than we thought--we'd picked and chosen several individual types, which then caused us to get charged $1 per type instead of by the pound--and I also got a rose lassi, which, weirdly, didn't taste like yogurt at all and also included basil seeds and vermicelli-like noodles. very odd.

overall, it was not expensive (though it wasn't dirt-cheap), and it was very good. I'd go back, although I don't know if it's quite at the level at which I'd recommend that friends travel out there specifically to go.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


after eating out a bunch, I wanted to make a nice simple meal that didn't really cost any money. compounding my need for something simple and savory was the fact that Priya and I went to Brina's brunch this morning and had her exquisite challah french toast--very tasty, but nothing at the brunch wasn't sugary, so I was feeling like I needed something salty to round out the day.

so I made mujadarra. I couldn't find a recipe I liked online so I kind of winged it. used my brand-new birthday mandolin to slice a gigantic amount of onions--seriously, probably 5 regular-sized onions--into very thin rings. fried them in a lot of olive oil in my Dutch oven for a long time--10-20 minutes, until they were turning brown and looking as if they were beginning to burn. then I added 2 cups of regular green/brown lentils and stirred a bit. a little salt, a little pepper, and a tiny bit of allspice; then I poured in some water (2 cups maybe? who knows) and let it simmer for around 20 minutes, until the lentils were softening. added 2 cups of rice, more water, and continued to simmer (stirring and adding more water very frequently) until it was done. stirred in some chopped parsley and lemon juice and ate it in a pita with a pickle on the side.

birthday dinner #2: Dumont

after "dinner with Priya's family" on my actual birthday, I went out to Dumont on Saturday night with 15 friends (they gave us the whole center room!) for my Official Birthday Dinner Celebration. it was too dim for pictures, sadly.

out of the group, at least 5 or 6 of us got the Dumont Burger. I kind of wanted it, but since I've gotten it the past 2 times I've been to the place, I needed a change. so Priya and I split a Dumont Salad (okay, I've gotten that a bunch, too, but whatever) and I got a lamb shank with pureed parsnips. I wanted the braised short rib with red cabbage, but the waitress had to come back and tell me that they had just run out (and this after spilling beer on my back!). no matter; the shank was great, not gamy at ALL (clearly a real lamb and not a maybe-getting-toward-sheephood animal) and the parsnips were delicious--several people around the table tried them and seemed impressed. I also got to nibble on Ahmad's mac and cheese (a nice crusty browned part from the top) and Priya's roast chicken (sounds boring, but how do they get it so flavorful and juicy?).

for dessert, I had a candle stuck in creme brulee, a very touching gesture. the creme brulee I thought was maybe a little too sweet 'n' creamy (weirdly; usually when a restaurant messes it up it's too eggy) but still very fine. all in all, a great meal...that I didn't have to pay for!

birthday dinner #1: Sripraphai

This post combines discussion of two meals at Sripraphai, the butt-kicking Thai place in Woodside. Priya, Erum, Sam, Jonathan, Katie, Nooria, and I had been trying to go for a few weeks, but circumstances conspired against us: we forgot that it was always closed on Wednesdays, so our planned trip a few Wednesdays ago was called off at the last minute; then they went on vacation for a week, so we had another last-minute cancellation (we went to Kabab Cafe instead, which was awesome--see earlier posts). Finally, on Sunday, we were able to make it happen. As luck would have it, Priya's parents were in town, and as they enjoyed the place, we made plans to go again on Thursday--my birthday! So two Sripraphais in one week--lucky me!

We took extensive pictures on our first trip, but not so much on the second.

Both times we were sure to get the fried watercress appetizer. I've had it enough that I'm no longer surprised by how they were basically able to make fried lettuce work, but I still enjoy it greatly. On Thursday, I thought it was a bit subpar, though--the watercress seemed, maybe, overfried? At times it was like eating dry pieces of straw. I think I happened to only pick stems from the plate, not the leaves, so it may have simply been my fault for choosing the worst pieces. Still, maybe stems quite that thick shouldn't have been served if they were going to taste crappy. Don't get me wrong--I will definitely order it again, and it's one of the best dishes I've had there out of my 4 or 5 times getting it.

We also got a meat salad (laab?) with ground pork and shredded mango salad. I really enjoy how pretty much all of the appetizers (the aforementioned watercress salad included) come covered with super-spicy chili oil and scattered with squid, chicken, shrimp--protein you maybe didn't expect you'd be getting. We also got the mango salad on Thursday, and I think that day it was the spiciest of all the appetizers, even moreso than the spicy bbq pork appetizer (which I thought was OK the first time I had it, but which was definitely awesome this time--the thin slices of pork were grilled just right, with crispy browned edges).

Both days we also got a bowl of tom yum soup for the table to split. I've had tom yum dozens of times, but for some reason it's only really ever been memorable here. The broth is very tangy, sour enough to constrict your throat a bit, but lemongrassy and savory. Highly recommended--another thing I didn't mind eating twice in a week.

Next came the green curry with chicken, which I still maintain to be the only green curry I've ever had that I really like. I'm not sure how, but their sauce is unbelievable, especially over their equally-unbelievable coconut rice.

Both nights we also got the drunken noodle--in fact, on Thursday we got both the pork and chicken versions. One of the most consistently pleasing dishes here--I even tried to replicate a version of it at home back when New York magazine published a Sripraphai recipe for ground chicken with Thai basil--I can't quite explain how it's superior to a flat-noodle dish like pad see yew you'd get at a more conventional Thai place. Priya's dad was disappointed by the ground dark-meat chicken they used, but I think that enhanced the dish for me--I've come to appreciate the flavor of dark meat poultry more than white.

A misstep: sliced duck with Thai eggplant. I love duck, I love eggplant, I wanted a Thai eggplant dish, and Sam agreed with me. It looked great and it tasted fine, but was really nothing special. I didn't think the duck flavor was pronounced (while Erum thought it was too ducky), and there weren't many Thai eggplants in it at all--I only got one-quarter of an eggplant. After we ate it, I had a vague memory of being seduced by the duck-eggplant dish on my very first outing to the restaurant, for Priya's birthday last year, and having an equally tepid reaction. Okay, never again, I've learned.

We'd previously gotten the whole red snapper cooked with ginger sauce and thought it was amazing, so we thought we'd try something different this time--the snapper with lemongrass sauce. It was one of the most pronounced lemongrass flavors I've ever had--in a good way--and wasn't overrun by a panoply of different flavors, like in lemongrass-flavored soups. Ultimately, I think the ginger fish was a bit better, but the lemongrass fish was still delicious. I especially love how the fish are fried rather than grilled, so after someone has picked it apart for the table (Katie was our fish-picker) there's crispy knobs of fish skin mixed with the snow-white flesh and flavored sauces.

our fish-picker Katie also selected a dish I hadn't had at Sripraphai before: beef penang. I've only had rendang at Malaysian places, so I was interested to see the Thai take on it. The sauce was thick and extremely spicy--coconut milk and chilis thickening the beef juice, I guess? Even the whole bird peppers floating around in it had taken on the sauce's flavor, so I was eating them and getting progressively sweatier. Great choice, and one of the top dishes of the night.

We also got a couple of vegetarian dishes on the side--Chinese broccoli and mustard greens. At first we tried to order the Chinese broccoli with salt fish in it, but the waitress was like, "Are you sure? Very, very salty. Only for Asians." Ultimately, we decided to get it the white-people way, but now my interest is piqued--how salty is too salty? The mustard greens were very strange--they came with big chunks of two types of tofu, and didn't look like any kind of mustard green I'd had before--almost like chopped bok choy or celery ribs. Did we get the wrong thing? Not really sure, but it was pretty good, so oh well.

On Thursday, we also got the pad Thai with chicken. When Bill had ordered it a couple of months ago, it hadn't seemed very good, but this time it was fine. I don't think it was super-special, but I enjoyed it. I'm not sure how I feel about how it comes deconstructed (with the bean sprouts, peanuts, etc. all put in neat little piles around the plate for you to combine on your own), but maybe I'm just used to the Americanized version.

Also on Thursday, we revisted a dish I'd had a few months ago--C17, the chili-basil pork leg. I'd thought it was very good before, but on Thursday it really shone and burned itself into my memory. Nobody seemed to want much of it except for me and Dennis, so we were happy to finish it off. Cooked perfectly so it was falling apart, with a crispy fatty skin on the outside, it had some kind of sweetness to the braising liquid we couldn't quite place--tamarind? Cinnamon? Actual brown sugar? I don't know, but it's on the very top of my Favorite Things To Get At Sripraphai list now. Again, it was so good I even ate the chilis that came with it. Although I didn't get a picture, here's the one I took a few months back:

Two great meals, not sick of the place yet!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Taco Chulo

Priya, Jonathan, and I met for dinner in south Williamsburg and, after some wandering, ended up at Taco Chulo, on Grand near Havemeyer. It seemed like it was getting busy, but we got a seat without waiting.

And then proceeded to wait. And wait, and wait. We looked over the menu and weren't very excited by it--we didn't see anything that appeared to be worth the price they were charging for it. Chips were $2 (plus $1 for salsa, I think) per basket! (shouldn't a restaurant be giving these fairly inexpensive items away like bread?). A michelada was $3 more than a regular beer! At most places it's the same price, or MAYBE a dollar more (all it is is a beer with a glass of ice, some salt, and lime juice). The entrees all looked like they were maybe $1-2 more than they really ought to be.

We were wrapped up in conversation or we might have simply left without placing orders beyond the drinks and chips we'd ordered when we sat down. (I had an horchata, which tasted more of "red cinnamon" than "brown cinnamon", probably meaning it was overcinnamoned?) Fifteen minutes went by, and no waitress appeared to take our orders. Finally, a gentleman (maybe the manager) saw us craning our necks and came over and took our order, apologizing and saying, "She's really busy right now, we just got slammed, lots of phone orders..." (the place was full but not packed, from what I saw).

And again we waited...and waited...and waited. Forty-five more minutes went by with no sign from the kitchen--no food, no waitress coming by to check on drink refills...our $3 basket of chips was long since emptied and we didn't want to pay for another. My stomach growled.

Jonathan espied an almost-full basket of chips on a nearby empty table and, without warning, jumped up and made for it. Too late, Priya and I saw that the girls who had been there had left their purses on their seats--they were just having a cigarette or something. We yelled, "Jonathan!" but someone was quicker--the manager guy made a beeline for him and barked, "Sir! Sir! Those women are still here." (no idea why he was so attentive to that kind of thing, yet couldn't be bothered to check on our food).

Jonathan covered well. He muttered something about how we had dared him to do something, and he was just joking. He returned to the table, abashed, and we continued to sit.

Caputo randomly arrived and sat with us. He ordered some tacos and beer. After more than an hour's wait, our food showed up (and Caputo's came not too much later). The people next to us had been seated, ordered, eaten, and left by the time our food had come at all. there was no explanation, no "we'll throw you guys some chips or drinks" or anything.

and the food was fairly standard. I had opted for a pork taco, which was flat-out okay. nobody else seemed very impressed, either. no pictures because it was dim, and anyway the food wasn't really worth discussing in detail.

won't be returning.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Kabab Cafe

Sam, Erum, Priya, Sirin, and I (and Sam & Erum's not-quite-six-month-old cutie Nooria) had planned to venture to Queens for Sripraphai tonight, but a phone call to make reservations revealed that it was closed for the next seven days for vacation! That's the second time in the immediate past that our plans for awesome Thai were scuttled at the last moment.

We decided to take advantage of the opportunity to go to a place we'd long wanted to try--Kabab Cafe in the Little Egypt section of Astoria. My Arabic instructor, Ustaz Ahmad, had exhorted us to try some restaurants in the area, so I was sort of doing homework as well.

When we entered the Kabab Cafe, I was immediately struck by how tiny it was. We knew it was going to be small, but three tables? To make things odder, there was nobody inside. In the dimly lit, oddly decorated space, squeezed behind a tiny counter, an old Egyptian man with a beret eyed us balefully. I guessed it was Ali El Sayed, and I was kind of trepidatious...chowhound and yelp and other food sites are full of stories about his moodiness, and since this was the kind of restaurant in which you basically throw your fate into the palm of the chef's hand, a bad-mood day might mean a crappy meal.

Thankfully, Ali greeted us warmly (I mean, we were the only people in his restaurant, so he kind of had to be nice to us), and immediately helped us find a place for Nooria and her stroller. Once we were settled, he came over to talk to us about what we might want to eat. Salads? Appetizers? Vegetarian? Meat? (he said he had everything--chicken, beef, lamb, goat, duck, rabbit) Fish? We decided to skip the fish--it seemed expensive from poking around online--and ordered an array of meat and vegetable dishes. A little nervous about not seeing any prices or even being clear on what the specific foods were, we needed a moment to talk things out and he graciously stepped aside. I got the impression that he was not the disorganized, explosive auteur he was often made out to be--he knew exactly what to ask to find out what we wanted, was genuinely offered us everything he had available, and wasn't offended when we needed to nerd out a little and strategize about our choices. He's seen it a million times from extraborough foodbloggers, I'm sure. Once we'd ordered, the food began to come out and (as the restaurant had begun to fill up) we found ourselves pressed for space. Ali advised that we eat everything on a dish quickly when he put it down so he could put down another. Okay.

We began with a double order of mezze featuring baba ghanoush, hummus, ful moudammas dip (pureed fava beans), and falafel. It really began the meal with a bang--the baba ghanoush had the most noticeable wood-smoked flavor I've ever tasted in the dish, and it wasn't over the top at all. The hummus was very fine, and the fava bean dip was the best of all--lemony, rich, and tangy. But the falafel...probably the best I've ever had. The balls were teardrop-shaped, not round, and neither greasy nor overfried, with a flavor more pronounced and less pasty than any I've had before. I've heard that Ali makes them with fava beans, and I think that I can no longer say that bright green Israeli falafel is the best way to do it. I also liked the crispy-fried greens--kale?--that added a great texture to the creamy dips.

We asked for both of the salads on the menu--beet salad and artichoke hearts salad. I wasn't expecting too much from these. I hadn't read much about them, and beet salad can be excellent, but it's usually pretty simple...throw some goat cheese, nuts, and beets together, hope you have good-quality ingredients, and charge 12 bucks for it. And artichoke hearts? 99% of the time, they're from a jar, pickled, boring, not artichokey at all. I should've had faith, though--both of these salads were fantastic. The beets were tiny--nickel- and quarter-sized--and mixed with apple slices, caramelized onion hearts and garlic, and sprigs of fresh dill, with a dusting of Egyptian spices and viniagrette. The artichoke hearts were clearly cut from real, house-roasted artichokes, big C-shaped spears of solid artichoke meat, sometimes with a tiny charred leaf still attached. Mixed with chopped tomatoes, orange peppers, basil leaves, grilled onions, and lemon dressing (and also dusted with a fine coating of za'atar), the salad was what I always wish "artichoke heart" salads would be (though they never are).

The next item up was the sweetbreads, sauteed in a lemon sauce. I'd really pushed for these, and everyone else seemed kind of iffy about them, but I'd never had sweetbreads before and had heard (from Wooh) that the offal at Kabab Cafe was not to be missed. I gotta say that Wooh was right. They were delicious--soft and chewy in a way that makes you think that maybe you're eating a piece of fat at first, but then the fattiness giving way to a real meat chew and flavor, finishing with a very rich, proteiny taste, kind of like foie gras melting in your mouth. Again this was mixed with peppers and onions and basil and a delicious thin dressing, which Sam continued to scoop up and eat long after everyone had abandoned the fried thymus glands to me.

Another must-have item was the kafta (the closest thing the menu had to "kababs"; when we asked about kebabs, he dismissed us with a wave of his hand, saying "That just means meat. Meat!"). We had been hoping for chicken, but no dice--only beef. That was fine with me. The kafta was kind of like heavily spiced meatballs, grilled over fire rather than baked in an oven, with beefy juices soaking the rice below to such a degree of deliciousness that Priya exclaimed about it. Much better than the Lebanese kafta I used to eat regularly at the Reef Cafe in Allston!

We decided we didn't want little lamb chops, but we did want lamb, so we got a date-stuffed breast of lamb with a ridge of dark mallow greens (I think) tucked around it and a smear of labneh cheese on top. Perfectly cooked to the point of extreme tenderness and highly flavored, we only wished it had more of the meaty part. I was pretty happy gnawing the fatty meat off the bones, though. And I didn't see any whole dates--I think they were more in the glaze/sauce than "stuffing".

Next Ali brought us two vegetable dishes: the moussaka (less liquidy and more flavorful than the Lebanese version I've eaten before, and much preferably to the Greek version with its ground meat and layers of cheese) and kushari. I'd been hoping Ali would offer us kushari, and when he did I pounced on it and ordered it. One of Egypt's big "national dishes", kushari is a gross-sounding mixture of rice, macaroni, lentils, tomato sauce, and charred onions that comes out absolutely delicious when made by the right person. I guess Ali was that person. It had a sweet, powerful flavor that was enhanced by the whole cinnamon sticks stewed in with the makings, and the dark color and delectable flavor of the macaroni made me wonder how on earth he did it without sauteeing them in beef grease.

Still feeling a little hungry, we put in a late order for a half chicken cooked with vegetables, and that provided a sort of dessert for us. The cafe's trademark char was evident all over the dish, and thinly-sliced potatoes on the side were steeped in the juices that were flowing from the dark-brown, well-marinated grilled chicken as it lay over rice. While enjoyable, the dish was, at heart, chicken with grilled peppers and zucchini and onions, so I wasn't overly impressed. But as marinated grilled chicken goes, it was near the top.

We all lowballed our guesses on the bill, which came out to $135 (including $5 for 5 bottles of water--Ali refused to give out tap water). With tip, it was still only a little over $30 each, which isn't a "cheap eat", but is nowhere near what a similar meal would cost in a more conventional sit-down restaurant. And we'd BYOBed, drinking Lillet mixed with water and pear cider, so we didn't have alcohol expenses.

All told, a great meal that lasted a few hours and didn't cost so very much.