Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Dish: Bagels

First and foremost, if you are from anywhere outside of New York, and its surrounding boroughs you are not allowed to claim you have the best bagels, let alone real bagels. Anyone who has tried a bagel down in Florida or in Texas knows that they are not what most of America is eating. A bagel is not some heavy meal, they are light, incredibly flavorful, soft and a little chewy. They are usually pretty big, with a small whole in the middle, not some jumbo center missing like it's a donut. The best way to tell a good bagel from a bad bagel is cutting it in half. If it starts smooshing up too much, it wasn't made right and you might as well get a slice of bread.

Types of bagels vary from my two favorites, cinnamon raison and everything, to exotic flavors like asiago jalapeƱo (at Au Bon Pain...) or olive & pine nut. There are even extensions of bagels, called the bialy, or as I like to think of it, the Jewish uncle of the bagel family. Sometimes you can even find these are not made right. Eating a bialy without the onions in the middle is pretty much a waste of your time. Toppings for bagels vary even more than the flavors. From plain old cream cheese, to whitefish salad, and even tofu cream cheese, bagel sandwiches are always fun to make and eat. Personally, I love to combine salty and sweet flavors, like a cinnamon raisin bagel with vegetable cream cheese, or pumpernickel with chicken salad. I don't know if it counts, but the Russ & Daughters unique version of a bagel sandwich has garnered a cult following, even allowing you to make it a "super heeb" by adding wasabi fish roe.

In a category all by itself is the epitome of how many picture a bagel, with lox, or for you non-Hebrews, smoked salmon. The combination of a great bagel, with cream cheese, good lox, onion and the optional tomato & capers is a sight to behold. I can't think of a better breakfast or brunch plate to put in front of someone. Of course, no Jewish family meal of bagels and lox is complete without the standard arguments about taking to much, should it be open faced or closed, or even the inevitable touching of the last piece with your hand so no one else wants it.

When your shopping for bagels in NY there are only three real options if you're not a tourist: H & H Bagels, Ess-A-Bagel and Absolute Bagels. Of the three I personally feel that Ess-A-Bagel is the best because it has the perfect texture and density that is often lacking from other bagel shops, and they still make them the way they always have for decades. Throw in a great selection of cream cheeses, an amazing white fish salad, and perhaps the best chicken salad on a bagel you can buy, and they are always at the top of any "best bagels list". Just don’t think you can walk right in at 10am on a Saturday and get a bagel. Generally there are lines almost out the door as hungover roommates and lifelong Stuyvesant Town denizens crowd the small downtown space. While you could go to the midtown spot, why not just go to the original to get that old world feel that emanates from the wood paneling?

A Real New York Breakfast

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Restaurant: Golden Unicorn Restaurant

Picture New York’s Chinatown and you probably conjure up packed, dirty streets, very few stores with any English writing, fish mongers everywhere and lots of restaurants. Sadly, not many of these restaurants are actually worth the effort to find or even attempt to explain to a waiter what you want. Pick 10 New Yorkers worth his or her metro card and you will probably get 10 different “best” Chinatown restaurants. While some always seem to rise to the top, they are usually just bunched together because of their location. To this extensive list, I humbly submit the Cantonese dim sum mecca Golden Unicorn. Located on the edge of Chinatown, where east Broadway meets Catherine (yes, this does exist), Golden Unicorn is actually inside an office like building with a flashing sign, where you take the elevator upstairs to either the second or third floor to be seated. My experience at the restaurant is not your standard fair, so I must point out I went on Christmas Eve slightly intoxicated, and it just happened to also be a Chinese wedding reception. This reception included, each individual wedding party member being introduced to strange techno music, the bride and groom coming out to I Will Always Love You, a crooner singing (karaoke?) as well as three scantily clad young girls doing a choreographed dance number to a hip hop song. You can’t make this stuff up anywhere outside of NY.

So besides the dancing girls, why would you want to go? The food is actually quite good, and above your average Chinese, and on par with some of the other top Chinese restaurants in the area. The guys I went with are somewhat the traditional types when it comes to eating out, but the hot and sour soup was exceptional. I try hot and sour soup anywhere I can get it, and this may have been the best I have ever had. The soup had a perfect somewhat thick consistency, with tender pork and veggies. My friends egg drop soup was gone almost as quickly as my own steaming bowl. We tried four dishes: mango chicken, beef curry, sweet and sour pork and pork fried rice. Of the 4 dishes, the pork fried rice and sweet and sour pork stood out above the rest. Personally, the mango chicken was a bit disappointing, simply being heavily battered and fried chicken with a dish full of gooey duck sauce like mango flavored sweetness. On the plus side, they did get our white meat only request correct, which for anyone who has tried ordering in Chinatown is not an easy thing to do. The beef curry was extremely flavorful, and had a nice sauce consistency both coating the meat and vegetables, while still being enough of a liquid to put on top of rice. The only problem I had with this otherwise great dish was too many green peppers and onions. It would have been nice to see less of each vegetable, and more of a third vegetable like a baby corn or even red pepper to add a bit more color and sweetness. The earthiness of the green pepper and onion took away from the savory curry and the tender beef.

The sweet and sour pork was a surprising favorite. Small chunks of breaded and pan fried pork paired with a coat your spoon sweet and sour sauce had the delicious pairing of pineapple, green peppers, carrots and onions. The tenderness and moistness of the pork preserved by frying the meat paired perfectly with the sweet but tangy sauce. Plus, the batter was not overwhelming and was lighter than expected so it was simply a part of the dish, rather than a focal point. The sweet and sour pork more than any other dish seemed to cause disagreements over how much the other people had taken the first time. Luckily, a late arriving second pork dish also drew rave reviews. Everyone knows pork fried rice, but how often do you see it made with only a few peas, egg, sprouts and other vegetables and focus on the actual pork and flavoring of the rice. Instead of the standard cubes of pinkish red pork, the dish arrived bursting with white flat wok seared almost cutlet like pieces of pork. The pork used was clearly the same cut and pieces that are used in stir fry dishes served in the restaurant, and makes me wonder if I can ever truly go back to the sub standard pork fried rice I was eating.

Just the food alone is quite the experience at Golden Unicorn, and I hear their dim sum is what they are really known for, especially during lunch hours. If you happen to be in the middle of a wedding, well just hope you brought your camera. Oh, and make sure to get plenty of Tsingtao with your meal, it makes any Chinese food taste even better.

Unicorns are real

Friday, January 18, 2008

Condiment of the Week: Mayonnaise

Just the thought of mayo on anything makes some people cringe, but as far as condiments go, mayo is way to often overlooked. When used in the right amount, mayo can add a great flavor and creaminess to dressings, sandwiches, salads (as in tuna, turkey, chicken, seafood, potato, coleslaw, get the point) and dips. Recently more and more people have shied away from real mayo in favor of Miracle Whip, Nayonaise, or low fat mayo because it is so full of fat and cholesterol. To these people I say, rethink mayo! The same people who eat the "better for you" mayo tend to use more of it because it is not as flavorful, while those that use regular mayo usually realize that a little goes a long way. Anyone who uses mayo like a dip, with nothing else but carrot sticks, celery and a smile is as crazy as Hellmann's, who ran a commercial depicting women doing this a few years ago. I mean, c'mon, I love mayo, but the thought of dipping vegetables in it disgusts me more than McDonalds nutritional information.

Believe it or not, it's actually pretty easy to make your own mayo but why do that when you can buy the best, like Hellmann's. I still have not found a brand of mayo that comes close to Hellmann's in terms of the thick spreadable texture, and rich flavor that is both distinctive and complimentary to whatever is added to it. Ironically, in Europe mayo is more of a dipping sauce for french fries and not a sandwich spread. Mayo in Europe is preferred for french fries, but it is much thicker and the flavor is less eggy and more buttery. For the best example of this type of mayo, and other European mayo with different flavors (curry comes to mind) try the original Pommes Frittes.

The Mystery of Mayo

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Beer of the Week: Heineken

Being half Dutch makes me somewhat biased to the most well known beer from the motherland, although Amstel Light has been giving it a run for the money. Heineken is an odd beer and suffers sometimes from the same issue as many German beers - skunkyness. Although this is somewhat intentional, I find that due to the green bottle, too often you buy it and it has gone from a slightly bad bitter taste, to a really bad taste that ruins the normal crisp hoppy taste that you come to expect when you find it on tap. Personally, I only get Heineken on tap, it always tastes significantly better. In fact, I would argue that more so than any other beer the difference in taste improve for Heineken when you compare draught to bottle or even can. Technically a pilsener, although most people probably wouldn't think about it in that way, the taste if you really concentrate has almost a slightly earthy taste, although it is so light the flavor doesn't last too long on your tongue. Personally, I love getting a Heineken and pairing it with traditional Dutch food like fresh raw herring at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. This is a somewhat acquired taste, and it took me years to really warm up to it, but now it is a tradition every year the herring fleet comes in to New York.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 5-6 (as long as it's on tap)
Pair with Food: Absolutely, especially fresh herring, and hearty soups and stews.

Get your hands off my Heini

Friday, January 11, 2008

Restaurant: Esperanto

Dinner at Esperanto is all about two things, the vibe and the food. Service and tight quarters are not concerns of the owners, who focus more on a funky hip vibe that you can only find down in alphabet city. Cramming as many tables as possible, and as few waiters as possible, may seem like a big negative, but once you sit down and listen to the (very) often live Latin music and take a few sips of the Kiwirinha (Kiwi Caipirinha) or Mojito you won't want to leave any time soon. Kitchy, old world looking Latin "artifacts" adorn the walls, and everyone around you seems to be laughing and smiling and pretty damn attractive. Even better, during the summer they have sidewalk seating so you can enjoy the sun and sip on some delicious drinks and feel for a second like you might be in Latin America.

The food is described as pan-Latin fusion, but really leans heavily on Brazilian influences. Having eaten at Esperanto often, I have had the luck of trying a lot of different dishes. Make sure you don't fill up on the delicious bread and spicy chili and pepper corn laced oil, although it is hard to resist. The crab in banana leaf starter with plantain chips is delicious, with plenty of lump crab, and spices like cumin to accentuate the sweetness of the crab. Plantain crusted goat cheese with cilantro pesto is a nice take on on ingredient not as common to Latin cuisine. The rich goat cheese is cut well by the plantain breading, and the salad and pesto that comes with it. Other favorites include the grilled calamari salad that is light, tasty and a good size portion. The ceviche, while delicious, is not a standout. I've tried the tuna and the snapper, and while both taste good, they are usually either too strongly flavored, or have too much coconut milk to really get the fish flavor.

Entrees include some standards like a Latin spiced pork chop and a shell steak with chimichurri, but where Esperanto excels is with it's fish and more traditional dishes. The chicken is strongly flavored with coriander and quite a bit spicy, while the grilled tuna also has an unexpected kick that is offset by the pairing of collard greens with an orange mojo sauce. This is a theme carried on throughout most of the dishes, pairing a little bit of flavorful heat, with a side dish or sauce that balances it out and doesn't overwhelm the meat or fish. A personal favorite of mine is the Feijoada, which is described on the menu as the national dish of Brazil. Although simply a pork stew with beans it has amazing depth in flavor, and comes with collard greens and farofa. Farofa is not a common ingredient outside of Brazil, and it a flavorful grainy mixture that you add into the stew to your liking to thicken it and add some smokiness. I always try not to use it all, but by the end of the meal I can't help myself. Plus, by that time I'm usually on my third disturbingly strong mojito and my decision making abilities are a little impaired.

Desserts are ok, but nothing out of this world. The coconut flan is very refreshing at the end of the meal, with a nice syrup poured over top. The passion fruit mousse is also delicious, but generally it's not worth ordering an individual dessert for everyone since portion are so big.

Too Cool for Brazil

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Condiment of the Week: Balsamic Vinegar

I know, vinegar isn’t really as sexy a condiment as in the past (yes, condiments are sexy), but balsamic vinegar is not just an ordinary vinegar. More than any other vinegar, balsamic can make your mouth water, rather than think of the sourness similar to sucking on a lemon. Real balsamic vinegar comes from Italy, some of the best from Modena specifically, where it is costly, but also used in only very small amounts. Here in the U.S. one can find a lot of different types, but I like to break them into three categories like liquor at a bar: house, name brand and top shelf. House balsamic is like Progresso, very sour and close to standard vinegar. Almost black in color, it is only really good for when you feel you need a lot of vinegar in something, but want that slightly sweet and flavorful taste of balsamic in it. I tend to use it in tuna salad, or in basic vinaigrette dressing. Name brand balsamic is the kind you see at the supermarket or your specialty food store that is a bit more expensive, the color is a little more red and the consistency is more viscous than your house balsamic. It also has a good balance between the sourness of standard vinegar, and a sweeter flavor that tastes great with a little bit of heat. It is perfect for building sauces and marinades, making a good vinaigrette for a special salad, or reducing and using almost as a syrup.
Top shelf balsamic is amazing, and once you’ve had it the realization that the previous two are so far below becomes reality. Real balsamic is often aged until the consistency is that of a syrup, it is amazingly sweet, with a tang to it, and is used on it’s own with meat and salads, or my favorite, drizzled over a cheese and fruit plate. The best balsamic goes above and beyond your average condiment and can become the centerpiece of a dish, with all the other elements playing off of it for the perfect nosh.

The Real Balsamic

Monday, January 7, 2008

Beer of the Week: Guinness

Ahhhh Guinness. Blood of the Irish, meal of the boozehound, partner in the car bomb, the reason everyone loves St. Patty’s Day. The accolades could go on and on. Entire bars in New York are dedicated just to serving Guinness, and among beers, it might be considered king. Actually, king may be selling it short. Perhaps it should be the supreme imperial ruler of beerdom? Ok, so I got a little distracted and had to stop writing this and buy one in the middle. Believe it or not I was not always a Guinness convert, let alone a Guinness drinker until 2 years ago when on St. Patrick's Day I finally gave in to my initial distaste for it and gave it a second chance. Thank god I did. Like a moment of clarity I realized that it was not as filling as I had originally thought (why I didn’t like it) and had an amazing creaminess and taste that countless other beers tried to match, but never could. Guinness is always poured the same way, and then enjoyed quite quickly. Although a very dark and creamy beer, with almost a nutty and sweet flavor, the bitterness of many British/Irish beers is unmistakable. Instead of talking about how great Guinness is, I think this quote from Time Out New York is all anyone needs to know:
A perfect pint leaves a totally 'laced' [froth-lined] glass. To enjoy all the attributes of its flavor, fill your mouth to engage the taste buds: The sweetness from the front of the tongue, where the malt has impact; then the roastiness of Guinness at the sides of the tongue where the salty-sour buds lie; then the lingering bitterness at the back of the mouth - a full swig gives you all these sensations, along with a wondrous mouth-feel.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 3-4 (Depending on how much you like dark beer)
Pair with Food: Only if it's really good corned beef and cabbage

Manna for the Gods