Friday, March 28, 2008

Condiment of the Week: Walkerswood Fire Stick Pepper Sauce

I was lucky enough to have a number of different hot sauces, curries and marinades brought back for me from Jamaica, and of the bunch, one of the biggest standouts was the Walkerswood Fire Stick Pepper Sauce. As far as hot sauces go I have always had a fondness for the pepper sauce because it combines multiple types of heat, like peppers, garlic and onions, but also uses some sweetness like brown sugar. This version of the pepper sauce is actually mild, as far as Jamaican hot sauces go, but actually really packs a punch. It is a thick, almost pourable hot sauce, whose heat and flavor spreads slowly through your mouth and over your tongue so you get hit with a slow burn of flavor. The texture is not quite as thick as Srircha, but it's close. I tend to use it mainly for Mexican food, and add only a few carefully placed drops for both heat and texture. It balances nicely with a more liquid standard hot sauce like Frank's.

So good it's sold out!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Restaurant: Hearth

Hearth is one of those restaurants that when it first opened it was very hard to get a table because of all the buzz surrounding its chef and the food. Unlike many restaurants before it, once the buzz died down, Hearth remained a popular place to go not only as a destination restaurant, but for the local east village neighborhood. All this, despite it's relatively high priced and eclectic menu that focuses on local fresh from the green market ingredients. Yes, I realize that this is all the rage now, but Hearth was doing it well before a lot of the newcomers. Even the chef, Marco Canora, comes from this type of background, having been the executive chef at Craft before opening Hearth in 2003. I've had the luck of going to Hearth on a number of occasions and it is the restaurant my family uses in the area for special celebrations and a bit of a splurge on a meal. Even if you don't go to eat, it's a lot of fun to walk by and peer into the kitchen from 1st avenue and watch the chefs work (this does tend to annoy them a little bit, and be careful, they have sharp knives).

Generally the menu, besides stressing fresh seasonal ingredients, also has hints of an Italian flair. It's also great that they keep refilling your bread plate as you go, in case you are worried about not getting enough food. They will always start you off with an amuse of soup in a shot glass and I wish you could order a full bowl. While the menu changes daily, there are some items that are consistent, such as a fish crudo, a tasting menu and a number of different fish and meat dishes as entrees. On my most recent trip there for my mom's birthday we ordered three appetizers - peekytoe crab salad with meyer lemon, a spring salad, and trout crudo with blood oranges. The salad was actually quite nice as far as salads go with radishes, small cubed potatoes, shallots and walnuts. The only drawback was the dressing seemed a little bit salty for my taste, and I always add salt to dishes so that means it was quite salty. The peekytoe crab on it's own would have been great and it tasted incredibly fresh, but the extreme sourness of the meyer lemon overwhelmed the sweetness of the crab. In the past when I've had meyer lemon it's been in sweet things, or as part of a sauce, and I was a bit surprised at how liberally it was used with such a delicate flavor in crab. The lone standout among the appetizers was the crudo, with a buttery like taste that paired well with the cucumber and radish salad and sweet/sour combo of the blood orange.

Before I even talk about the main dishes I must note that the side dish that you cannot miss is the hen of the woods mushrooms. They are incredibly meaty, probably more so than a portabella, are flash fried with no breading and incredibly delicious. I know some people don't like mushrooms, and even I will admit they aren't my favorite, but a meal at Hearth is not complete without this side. As for the main dishes all three were excellent, and I must admit, my dish was the my least favorite of the three.

I ordered the roasted pork loin with celery root, lentils, pork sausage and pears. The lentils were both regular and white lentils, and were nicely mixed with the celery root and small diced caramelized pears as a savory and sweet side. The pork itself was extremely tender and juicy, and went nicely with the large pork sausage link which was loaded with a strong fennel flavor. The whole dish was topped with a reduction of the pork gravy, and had a sweet finish to it, which when paired with the subtle fruit flavor of the pears brought to mind the staple of pork chops and apple sauce. Another entree was a roasted fillet of sturgeon with braised cabbage, pork sausage and chickpeas. The cabbage and sausage were actually layered between two pieces of the fish, and had a strong smoky flavor that unless you paired with the chickpeas could sometimes over power the sturgeon. Overall it was an interesting combo, and the unexpected smoke from the sausage added a little surprise to what could have been a relatively simple, yet delicious dish. Lastly, I tried the olive oil poached salmon. This dish was my favorite. Poaching salmon always leaves it incredibly light and juicy, and it came with mussels and a garlic parsley sauce. The sauce almost tasted like what mussels are normally served with, and this, combined with the airiness of the salmon, made for quite the perfect treat.

Normally we would not miss the dessert menu because the pastry chef is extremely talented, but we had birthday cake waiting at home. We did however indulge in the cheese plate, which is always fun to see the waitress try to recall where the cheese is from and what it tastes like. In case you were curious, our waitress got 11 out of 12, and came back within a minute to let us know the one she forgot. The cheeses themselves were a nice finish, each being served with a different fruit or sugary sweet, and a basket of bread.

While Hearth is expensive, it is a consistently good meal, and gives you your money's worth every time. It's fancy and delicious, but at the same time fits in well with the vibe of the area and can be both a relaxing meal and a great place to impress a date.

Gather round the Hearth

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Beer of the Week: Young's Double Chocolate Stout

While ordering the name of this beer, Young's Double Chocolate Stout, is a mouthful, once you have a taste you can see that it is worth the effort. Similar to Boddingtons, cans of this beer have a nitrous capsule that gives the faux foam that makes it extra creamy and frothy. Although this makes it quite tasty, I much prefer it from a bottle or on tap, but both are hard to find. Often the best way to hunt it down on tap is at Irish or British pubs in the winter, when they have it as a special selection at places like the Telephone Bar & Grill. The beer itself is delicious not for it's creaminess, but rather it's unusual chocolate flavor. A dark Irish stout in every sense of the word, the beer is infused with a dark bitter chocolate flavor that accentuates each sip and makes for a finish that is distinct and much different than any other beer out there. For me, it drinks like a Guinness that has a dark chocolate bar melted into it. If you are one of those people who likes the taste of beers with a fruit finish (cherry wheat for example), but are too embarrassed to get it without being called a girl, then this beer is perfect. The fruitiness is replaced by a deep and savory flavor that pairs well with the dark bitterness of an Irish stout.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 2-3 because it is filling and rich
Pair with Food: It goes great with hearty pub food like fish and chips, french onion soup or a burger.

Chocolate Beer

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Restaurant: Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches

Calling Nicky's a restaurant is using the term very loosely. It is more like a takeout storefront with 3 tables and about 7 or 8 chairs. Clearly, from the name alone, Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches serves Vietnamese style sandwiches. Personally, I have never had these before, but I know what they consist of and they always sounded delicious to me. On a recent Saturday I took a quick trip down to Avenue B to taste test and find out if they were as good as some of the reviews I had read. Interestingly, the negative things I had read, such as "too small", "expensive", "not authentic", are the types of comments that people make who are trying to find something wrong instead of liking what is right about a place. I think that using authenticity as a measuring stick for whether something is good or bad is a very odd way to determine quality. Just cause something is authentic, doesn't mean it is any better than something that is made a little differently.

I almost walked right by Nicky's since it is tucked away right behind a deli, and is very quietly marked as far as awnings go in the city. Upon walking in you could tell it was popular by the phone constantly ringing and the large group of people waiting outside for their orders. Originally, I had only planned on getting the classic Banh Mi Thit which consists of pate, Vietnamese ham and roast ground pork, but after looking at the menu I couldn't resist also ordering the Pork Chop sandwich. Both sandwiches were quite large, and the thick, crunchy French baguette was much better than about 90% of your normal deli rolls. The "classic Vietnamese sandwich" was delicious combining pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro and mayo with the three meats. I have to say, I couldn't actually find the pate, but I am not complaining because the food was delicious and plenty big for lunch. It may not fit the traditional sandwich that you would find in Vietnam (and I don't have any reference) but the the sweetness of the cucumber, combined with the savory meat and pickled carrots really dances on the tongue. Plus I added jalapenos that occasionally surprise you just when you think you are going to get that subtle sweetness in the next bite. Oh, and this was $4.50. I guess if you were in sunset park or Vietnam it might be a dollar, but last I checked even a small place in the east village doesn't exactly have the cheapest rent in the world.

Not surprisingly I forced myself to attack the pork chop sandwich right after I finished the first. Any time you can combine the words pork chop and sandwich, you will probably find me handing money over. In this instance I was thrilled to find the second sandwich even better than the first. The pork, although a little fatty compared to the leaner pork chops I usually eat, was perfectly seasoned and cooked to the point that it's juices had soaked into the bread. The toppings were the same as the first sandwich, with cilantro, cucumber, jalapeno, and pickled carrots. The difference between the first and the second sandwich was that the pork stood up to the strong flavored vegetables much better. While I could taste the cilantro and jalapenos, and still got the pickled sweetness of the carrots and cucumbers, the pork stood out as the dominant flavor of the entire sandwich.

All in all I know I will be back to pick up another sandwich or two from Nicky's, and maybe try their sardine or chicken Banh Mi versions. Next time, however, I think I will stick to one so I can avoid a solid food coma. Then again, $9.50 for two big flavorful sandwiches is hard to argue with...

Pate on a sandwich?

Condiment of the Week: Salsa

Salsa over the last decade and a half has gained such popular national acceptance that people tend to forget how novel of a condiment it was once considered. Plus, as Seinfeld would point out, it's a lot of fun to say. What is great about salsa is that it can vary so much, and be used for so many different things that it is one of the few things that can act as a sauce, a dip, and an ingredient.

I look at salsa as existing in three basic types, the kind you buy in the store that is from a big giant manufacturer, the kind you buy that is freshly made and considered “gourmet”, and the kind you get in restaurants or make yourself that can consist of just about anything and still be loosely defined as salsa.

Among the basic salsa’s, such as Pace, Tostitos, Old El Paso, Newman's Own, and Chi-Chi's, I always gravitate towards the Tostitos. Newman's Own could be considered borderline basic because it has some interesting versions, but I like it for it’s depth of flavor, it’s chunky texture, and a consistently subtle heat. Tostitos tends to be more of a tomato liquid, with big chunks of vegetables, but they get the heat levels right better than any other store bought salsa. Pace, Old El Paso and Chi-Chi's all make me add hot sauce to the medium or hot, and often their “mild” is so bland that it’s like eating an oddly flavored tomato sauce.

It is hard to determine the "best" gourmet salsa, since it is made differently almost everywhere that you find it on sale. Dean & Deluca sells some great gourmet brands, and I’ve found some amazing salsa at farmer stands that make it fresh from their own ingredients. Gourmet salsa usually uses the same ingredients as your basic salsa, except the vegetables are fresh, the cilantro, and other elements are distinct flavors that you could almost pick out with every bite, and the container is never sitting out for days. Gourmet salsa also tends to be much chunkier and like a container of finely chopped ingredients, than the sauce like consistency of the kind you find in your supermarket Mexican section. These types of salsa’s go best with the higher quality tortilla chips. Most people have had these, but rarely buy them. They usually come in some odd looking bag, some grease may have made the front a little see through, and they are very thick, and usually made with corn. You need these strong chips to hold up a big scoop of chunky salsa.

Last, but not least, is the type of salsa that is not sold, but is actually used in a dish and very rarely resembles the typical Mexican salsa us Americans know and love. Adding a citrus or avocado salsa on a dish in 2008 seems practically clich├ęd since it has become such a standard, but it still needs to be pointed out that this has really only become the norm in the last 10 years or so. I can’t remember growing up ever seeing a mango salsa, or an avocado white bean salsa on top of fish. Heck, my mom now makes a cranberry mango salsa at thanksgiving. The only thing that seems to keep these delicious sauces in the salsa category is they usually have onions, cilantro and some heat, like a jalapeno. And you know what? I love it. Keep up the good work inventive chefs, and come up with another crazy salsa for me to try!

Salsa not Seltzer

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Restaurant: The Smith

When it comes to eating out I have a number of pet peeves, but maybe one of the biggest is people who go to a restaurant with no idea what to expect, or unrealistic expectations. Going to a diner and expecting a 4 star meal with perfect service and delicious fish is a pipe dream. Going to a steak house, and thinking you are going to find a delicate piece of sushi is possible, but then why go to a steak house? It never hurts to get some idea of what to expect from a place before actually stepping in the door so that you won’t be really disappointed and you can judge the meal and experience in the context of what the owners and chef are trying to present.

With that rant out of the way, The Smith is just that type of restaurant that anyone who goes should make sure they know what to expect. I originally described it to someone as a laid back American style pub and I think that this is probably the best description you can give it. Seemingly trying to walk the fine line between fancy cuisine and the NYU college crowd that is right next door, The Smith has some nice touches for a space that used to house a Pizzeria Uno (R.I.P. – Steve you owe me a dollar). A long bar to the right when you walk in often has single diners or couples either cozying up to some unique and tasty drinks, or eating and chatting with the overly friendly bartenders. A large amount of wooden booths and tables go well with the bathroom like tiling of the floor and the dish towel napkins. Decor aside, they annoyingly will not seat you until your entire party has arrived, a policy that always irks me if at least 2 people are already there.

The wine list is relatively inexpensive, and features a “big carafe” which is well worth the money. We ordered a Malbec and discovered that it is the equivalent of almost 2 bottles. The small glasses make it feel like you are drinking a lot, and needless to say don’t drive home if you split the carafe with one other person. Since the restaurant can get very crowded and loud I suggest going earlier rather than later, but then again it is New York and if you want a quiet restaurant, you can go to North Dakota. The simple salad of arugula, shaved fennel, Parmesan with lemon and olive oil was a nice combination of flavors. The peppery arugula balanced surprisingly well with the fennel and savory Parmesan to make for a refreshingly light salad. The other appetizer on the table was a rich garlic butter and oregano plate of shrimp generously splashed with a sweet balsamic vinegar. Although a small portion (it is an appetizer after all) it was deliciously creamy and savory with the sweetness of the cooked garlic and butter playing quite well with the acidic sweetness of the balsamic.

Main courses are a nice range from steaks and pasta, to fish, chicken and vegetarian options. Our table shared the Skate, Vegetable Bibimbap, and Roasted Cod, with sides of brussel sprouts, and of course, spinach. The bibimbap was a bit overly spicy and you could barely taste any of the other vegetables or egg throughout because of the overpowering heat. Good heat accentuates a dish, bad heat, in this case, ruined it and made it just slightly above edible. The fish dishes, luckily, were much better. The skate was tender and meaty, living up to it's name as the poor mans lobster. Paired with the indulgent brown butter sauce and fried capers the contrast of the butter and the pickly capers made for an exquisite finish to each bite. The roasted cod also had a nice contrast, but more so in texture than in flavor. The chunky soft tomato sauce was a mild flavor, as was the chickpeas and almonds, but the crunch of the latter made for a surprisingly pleasant combo when eaten in the same bite. Brussel sprouts, long the vain of my existence, were edible. They seemed like they may have been flash fried, and had some orange zest, which almost masked how disgusting brussel sprouts truly are. Oil was the undoing of the spinach, with just a little too much left on the plate making it good, but not great.

Dessert, although probably not worth saving room for, is meant to be fun and a little different, like everything else at The Smith. The old school ice cream sundae attempts to make a comeback, as does a few other childhood favorites, like what I ordered - birthday cake. That's right, birthday cake. I ordered it just out of pure entertainment value and it comes with a candle and Happy B-day frosted on it. Sadly, the waitress opted to not sing as she brought it over, which was slightly disappointing. The cake itself tasted, well, like the same cake you have at the office for a birthday, or a cheap child's cake when the parents spent all the money on the bad clown and the rental space.

Ok, since this got so long, I would summarize this by saying The Smith is a nice place to head to for an easy going casual dinner with a slight twist, but most likely evolve into a neighborhood spot. Then again, it would also be perfect for a group of 4+ to get together for a fun and lively dinner.

The Smith (Not the one who kills zombies and robots)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Beer of the Week: Tsingtao

Before saying anything about Tsingtao I must point out that I have only had it in two situations during my life. Most times I imbibed in this Chinese beer was when growing up we would order Chinese food from The Cottage. My father would get about 4 or 5 Tsingtao, and then only drink one. After a couple of week I would have a dozen beers accumulated in the fridge. Trust me, nothing says party like free Chinese beer to go with a free house. The other times I drank Tsingtao were always while out having Chinese food, particularly in Chinatown. It always seemed like the right type of beer to order, perhaps because I was trying to show the waiter, yes, I may be ordering the most Americanized version of Chinese food around, but dammit I want that authentic Chinese beer to go with it.

Tsingtao's taste is almost that of a light beer, with a malty flavor and minimal hops. It smells nice, and is a good palate cleanser when eating something spicy or salty. It seems to almost have been made for the American palate, being slightly heavier than a light beer, but not full of so much flavor that it overwhelms the food you are eating. I probably wouldn't drink Tsingtao unless eating Chinese food, or as a really silly choice at a bar. I don't think I've ever seen Tsingtao on tap, and very rarely outside of a Chinese restaurant or bar will you ever find it even offered.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 4
Pair with Food: Anything Chinese is made for this beer, but particularly the heavier spicier dishes. I love it with hot and sour soup, or spicy szechuan dumplings.

The #1 Chinese Beer in America