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!