Saturday, April 11, 2009

Condiment of the Week: Horseradish

With the fun anti-bread holiday of Passover upon us, I had been thinking about what could possibly inspire me to write about food, and realized very quickly that I have completely forgotten about the underrated horseradish. The name alone does not exactly make you eager to eat it, but it imparts a strong and over looked flavor to many dishes and dips.

By itself the only time I know people regularly using horseradish is at Seders where the white and red are used to make "sandwiches" of charoset and horseradish, or on top of gefilte fish. I've had the luck (or punishment) of having these horseradish condiments made from scratch, and let me tell you, it is not a pleasant sight. The fumes that come from ground horseradish root, combined with vinegar, are worse than a really strong onion and will not only make you cry, but unable to breathe. As with many other strong pungent flavors (see Hot Sauces...) I like my horseradish strong and in small doses. Even the red version, made with sugar and beets, should still be strong and pack a punch of flavor. Perhaps the best way to describe horseradish flavor is that it is similar to wasabi. It brings a strong earthy flavor like other root vegetables, but can also clear out the sinuses and leave a slow long burn in the back of your throat if you don't balance the flavor properly.

Outside of Passover, you often find the root mixed with creamy sauces, like for roast beef, or in small amounts with stronger flavored fish. It also makes a great addition to dipping sauces, but like garlic, needs to be properly combined with salt, sweetness, and herbs to keep it from overwhelming your mouth.

Favorite Use: In generous portions on top of gefilte fish (an acquired taste)
Strangest Use: Small amounts mixed in with eggs, fresh herbs, and steak for a different style of steak and eggs.

Passover's Favorite Condiment?

Restaurant: Sachiko's on Clinton

Apparently I've been on quite the Asian food kick given the last few restaurants I've written about. Luckily there are quite a lot of varied and fun places to eat that don't make you feel like it is the same meal all over again. Sachiko's on Clinton, at first glance, is a regular Japanese sushi restaurant that is a little pricey and on a trendy up and coming street (Clinton St.). Once eating there, however, you realize that while expensive, it makes up for the cost with some unique dishes, and beautiful presentation that you won't find at your neighborhood sushi joint.

I've been to Sachiko's four different times, and while I've tried a number of different appetizers, sushi rolls, and main dishes, the best way to go is avoid your standard conventional sushi and branch out a bit. A great way to start is with the kushiage appetizer. Kushiage is in principal very simple, but when prepared right extremely delicious. Kushiage starts with different meats, cheeses and vegetables that are then panko breaded, placed on a bamboo skewer and pan fried. Sachiko's serves each with some basic Japanese dipping sauces made with miso and shiso. The appetizer portion comes with chicken and shiso, okra, shrimp and eggplant with cheese. Light and delicious, it's a great warm appetizer that delights the taste buds and makes you realize this isn't something you find on every menu. Other Kushiage standouts are the ginkgo nuts, eel and avocado, and shiitake stuffed with shrimp paste. With 18 different types to choose from on most nights, it is worth going a few times to find your favorites. Other starters are a bit more standard to the American palate, but I also love the Botan Ebi Carpaccio. The combination of sweet shrimp and sea urchin, with a zesty sauce whose primary ingredient is basil makes for a great cold starter before diving into the main course. The presentation and look of the dish alone makes me salivate, and the taste does not disappoint.

For sushi, while the regular rolls are delicious, make sure you try the special Sachiko's sushi which have some interesting combinations including foie gras with mushroom and lobster with caviar. The meals for two tend to be the most fun, just for the look of the plate alone. Similar to those sushi boats you often see in restaurants, Sachiko's offers the same style dining, but the plate far surpasses your expectations. I'd get into details, but it just wouldn't do them justice. The one dish I think I can accurately describe is the Tamatebako "Jewel Box". A great deal at just over $30 for 12 pieces of sushi, it contains different ball shaped sushi, each topped with a small amount of sauce or garnish. The contents seem to change slightly each time, but some of the best have included a seared piece of beef with horseradish sauce, yellowtail sushi with jalapeno, and fatty tuna with guacamole. Others include sweet shrimp with sea urchin, and scallop topped with roe. The beautifully arranged dish is a wonder to all the senses. The opening of the box reveals a rainbow of colors all beautifully presented at once, with a slight smell of the different sauces, and no fishiness. The box comes with a spray bottle of white soy sauce so you can enjoy the distinct flavors of each fish and sauce, without overwhelming it with soy sauce. Each piece has different textures, different flavors, and contrast with each other well to the point that you don't want to share with whomever you have invited to join you for that evening.

While there are plenty of other things to order on the menu, these are my favorites. I wouldn't recommend going to Sachiko's on Clinton if you are starving (or any sushi place now that I think about it) because it is expensive, but if you are looking for a different sushi dining experience you should head down to Clinton Street. Even if you aren't in the mood for sushi, head to Clinton either way, there are some really amazing and fun places all within a few blocks of each other.

The Jewel of Clinton Street

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Restaurant: Je'Bon

Je'Bon is located on what used to be the mecca of the east village, St. Marks, but has now transformed into Little Japan. For some this is brings out a distinct sadness remembering the glory (or not so glory) days of a neighborhood that was full of punk rock, Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish immigrants and their culture's cuisines. Je'Bon is just one of many Japanese and Asian centric restaurants to open within a few blocks of each other. What Je'Bon does, like many others in the area, is offer many different Asian cuisines on a single menu. This includes Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and a few others. It shouldn't be a destination restaurant for you, but I have been a few times and have found it an inexpensive, fun and eclectic setting for a week night dinner.

If you are interested in sushi there are all your standards to choose from, as well as a few specialty rolls, but honestly, you can do better on the menu. The yakitori served is very good, especially my favorite new snack, grilled mackerel skewers. Mackerel is a very strong and fatty white fish that turns a lot of people off because it isn't as mild as many other fish. This actually works perfectly for the yakitori grilling. The dish comes served with a little salt, crispy skin, and sizzling moist and meaty fish on a skewer. The inherent fattiness of the fish makes it incredibly moist and flavorful, and the grilled flavor takes away a lot of the strong fish taste. I usually can eat 2 or 3 of these just to start the meal, but always give one away so that other people can enjoy the luxury.

Another fun appetizer that comes from the Chinese spectrum is what they call a "Smiley Bun". In reality this is really a pork bun but a little bit fancier. The steamed bun is soft and melts in your mouth with just a little bit of chewy texture. The pork, while a little fatty, is very moist and balanced with green onions. The plum dipping sauce it comes with tends to be a little too sweet and can overpower the dish, so make sure you use it sparingly. Either way, an order of these can be a nice way to start your tour around the Far East.

Main dishes have quite a range from the aforementioned sushi, to pad thai, fried rice, teriyaki, noodle soups, and more vegetarian fare.

The three main courses I've had thus far are Coconut Seafood Soup, Nasi Goreng, and the Lotus Wrap. The seafood soup is just what it sounds like, but extremely satisfying, huge, and warming on a cold winter night. You can choose different noodles, but I recommend the spinach noodle for extra flavor. The coconut broth is sweet and savory and takes on the flavor of the various seafood that includes fishcake, shrimp, mussels, crab stick, and scallops. You also get a lot of vegetables including carrots, bamboo and mushrooms. The dish could probably serve two people if you aren't too hungry, but this is me, and I would probably get some grilled mackerel to go with it. Other than my inability to eat fishcake (I can't handle the texture), it is such a satisfying meal that just makes you feel warm and satisfied deep down and reminds you of the power of food to create happiness. Either that, or I just really like coconut broth.

Nasi Goreng is a fancy way of saying Indonesian fried rice. On paper it should be a really interesting dish, but after eating a few servings, it gets a bit boring, and very dry. If it was just a little bit moister it would be a go to dish for me. The plate is your standard fried rice with chicken, shrimp, pork, onion, scallion, and egg, but then the fun starts. Crushed peanuts, dried shallots, raisins, and broccoli stems are all added, and the whole dish is topped with fried anchovies. The peanuts, shallots, and raisins give great texture, and a needed sweet zing. The fried anchovies are what really save the dish, however, from pure mediocrity. The crunchy salty, and barely seafood flavored anchovies make it feel very different to the average palate. If you aren't turned off by the anchovies, they are really there more for the salt and they add some great balance to the dish.

Perhaps the best dish you can order at Je'Bon, at least that is out of the ordinary, is the Lotus Wrap. It is quite simple in theory, but is incredibly filling and tasty because it combines some of my favorite thing all together into one. The lotus wrap consists of a lotus leaf stuffed with Thai sticky rice, roast pork cubes, chicken, pork sausage, black mushrooms and dried baby shrimp. Read over those ingredients one more time. That's right, two types of pork AND sticky rice. The whole thing is steamed until a gelatinous, gooey amazingly delicious dish emerges. Sticky rice is very underrated, and most people are used to it being served on the side with Thai food, but combining it with all these types of meat and flavors makes it the unheralded star of the dish. The other part of the dish that intrigues and surprises is the use of the dried baby shrimp. A relatively common ingredient in some parts of Asia, it adds a different texture, and a strong shrimp flavor that permeates the rice along with the pork flavor. If you go, I highly recommend this dish.

I can't really speak to the desserts, although I'd probably just skip it entirely. You can do much better in the area than a dish of green tea ice cream or something doughy. Perhaps stick with just some tea instead.

All in all, I enjoy my meals at Je'Bon, but it's not always a go to place for me. It is a nice change of pace for dinner, and is especially helpful if you can't decide what type of food you want, but know it has to have some Asian flare.

Je'Bon - A Tour Through Asia

Restaurant: Ono

I will state this outright, Ono is not the type of restaurant I like. I don't like high priced super fancy and trendy restaurants, especially if they are Sushi/Japanese places. Why you may ask? Mainly because I can't stand spending a ton of money for food that may be great, but clearly tells you that you are paying for the ability to be part of the cool crowd. Now that the rant is over, I should point out I only went to Ono because I had a $150 gift certificate. Located inside of the Hotel Gansevoort, I realized instantly that my dad and I were the least fashionably dressed people probably within 300 feet of the place. A fun hip hop soundtrack (a bit loud for a restaurant) and a lively bar scene greeted us as we made our way to the table. The waitress was friendly enough to suggest how many of the small and large plates to order for two people, and we agreed that my dad would work the wine list, while I picked out the food. As we debated the final order, rice "bread" was brought out with a delicious sweet, salty and tangy spice rub dusted over it.

We decided on a bottle of rioja, 3 small plates, 2 "robata", a large plate, and a side dish. A lot of food for two people, but we were full of confidence (and noticed the rather small portions at other tables). It was also a clear statement that we weren't going to order $19 california rolls, if we could get non-sushi. The three small plates came all at once, and consisted of miso barbecued tuna spare ribs with yuzu spiced lotus chips, shrimp and chive gyoza with chili ponzu sauce, and spicy crab pizza with avocado, red miso and radish sprouts. The tuna spare ribs, while a novel concept, almost ruined a great piece of tuna, and lacked any distinct, or even subtle flavor that you would hope grilling or saucing would have established. They were also very small, and hardly had any meat on the "bone". The shrimp and chive gyoza were delicious, and went well with the light chili ponzu sauce, but there was nothing so special about them to make me say "Wow." I felt like I could have gotten just as good gyoza at a local noodle shop for about $12 less. The real standout among the starters was the spicy crab pizza. If you go to Ono you have to order this, whether you like crab or not. A delicious "dough" was really more like crispy flat bread, topped with a large amount of crab and avocado. What really makes the dish is the red miso and different types of fish roe that are generously portioned on every single piece. The multiple flavors intermingle well and despite the odd name, actually do remind you a bit of a Japanese version of what pizza could be like. Clearly there was a fight over the last piece while a spare rib was left for the loser.

Robata is just a fancy word for grilled meat, like a yakitori. We ordered the chicken and the asparagus and while both were grilled perfectly, the real highlight and reason for ordering were the 5 dipping sauces any robata came with. The sauces included ponzu scallion, toasted sesame mustard, kimchi, plum miso BBQ, and shiso pesto. Ironically the better of the sauces all seemed to be on one side of the plate. The shiso pesto, while a fun idea, was extremely bland, and felt like you were eating a less flavorful mint pesto (which I've had and is delicious if done right). The plum miso BBQ sauce I think was the same used on the tuna spare ribs, and was even worse than with the tuna. It lacked any distinct single flavor, and tasted like a more viscous Kraft BBQ sauce that I can buy at Key Foods. The kimchi sauce started to wake me up, with a surprisingly mild heat that went well with the chicken and the asparagus. The ponzu scallion was quite deliciously light and tangy, with the sharpness of the scallion and acidity of the ponzu standing up to the grilled flavor of the food. The toasted sesame mustard was maybe the best of all the sauces. It had a distinct mustard flavor similar to Chinese mustard, but the toasted sesame added an entirely different layer of intensity that fit really well with the asparagus.

For the main course a huge 28 oz "Togarashi crusted rib eye" in a red win teriyaki sauce was brought out, bone in, but already sliced. Along with this came the side of creamed ginger spinach with pine nuts. To say that we started salivating is an understatement. The steak was cooked perfectly rare, and the sauce was maybe the best part of the night. Every American is familiar with teriyaki sauce, given that it usually was your first introduction to Japanese food as a kid. The version that was served alongside the rib eye was a totally different experience. The reduced red wine added a fruity yet acidic flavor to what often is too sweet a sauce. The creamed spinach, while a little too creamy for my taste, was also delicious and the crunchy pine nuts only added to the hint of ginger in each bite. After slicing every last ounce of meat from the bone, and wishing we had bread for the sauce, our eyes turned on the dessert menu with distinct fear after eating so much.

Dessert was quite the let down, but perhaps we had already eaten too much to fully enjoy it. I ordered a pedestrian coconut custard, and we shared a trio of ice creams, neither of which were anything that I would ever recommend someone waste money on. The only good part during dessert was the tea I ordered called Final Fantasy (not the video game). It was a strong black tea that had the flavors of blackberries and a slight woody flavor. Whatever the exact mixture of loose tea, it was a delicious and a pleasantly soothing way to end such a varied meal.

Overall I probably would not go back to Ono unless someone else was buying. I'm sure the sushi is amazing, and there are some other impressive dishes, but there are other top notch restaurants that cost a little less, and give you more consistency dish to dish. If you are looking for some different Japanese food, and want to have it in a trendy setting, this is the place for you. Perhaps a good start to a night out in the Meatpacking District?

Ono, So So

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Condiment of the Week: Wasabi Mustard

Remember the days when there were only a few types of mustard? You had your regular yellow mustard, the deli mustard, dijon, and honey, but now you can pretty much find a mustard made with almost anything one can imagine. Peach and jalapeno mustard anyone? With that being said, some of these newer mustard inventions are actually quite good and can add an unusual and satisfying flavor to sandwiches and sauces. One of my favorites is Stonewall Kitchen's Wasabi Mustard. I already love wasabi for the strong distinct heat and flavor it lends sushi and other Japanese dishes, but mixed with a light dijon style mustard it makes for an odd, but delicious pairing. The wasabi is a bit muted in the mustard, lending more flavor than nostril clearing adrenaline rush heat. Perhaps it is also the clear addition of sugar, or apparently "pure cane sugar" in the ingredient list. Either way, I love to use this mustard for as many unusual things as possible. It can be used just as a dipping sauce for fresh vegetables like carrots and celery, added as a chicken marinade, or with fish and herbs. Limiting it to just sandwiches is a mistake, and I think that is part of the problem with gourmet mustard. One needs to get a bit creative to really use the full potential of a mustard made with wasabi and treat it less like a condiment and more like a sauce or dip.

Favorite Use: Grilled chicken marinade
Strangest Use: Sauce over grilled carrots

Gourmet Mustard

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Restaurant: Hill Country

Meat by the pound. I could probably just end this post right now, but I guess that isn't fair to anyone else given that just typing that made my tongue moisten. BBQ in New York has become the latest trend, like noodle bars, dessert chefs and other such eating establishments. At Hill Country, like a number of other BBQ joints, they take the less is more approach with nothing but Texas decorations or "memorabilia", wood, cafeteria trays and meat by the pound wrapped in butcher paper. Don't let the decor and style of ordering fool you, however, because the food is top notch, New York priced, and has a great Texas style bar selection.

When three beefy boys walked into Hill Country on a Friday night, we were all business. We took the menu's and without even sitting down discussed the plan of attack. It was quickly decided that all meats should be in the half pound range, with each of us ordering 1 type. Then on to sides, where the debate was heated between medium or large. In the end we decided on medium, and each of us were responsible for 1 of these as well. Having noticed my favorite bourbon while waiting at the bar, I ordered an Eagle Rare on the rocks. It is a great bourbon that is aged for ten years and passes along the oak, sweet caramel and fire that you expect in good Kentucky bourbon.

After waiting in line and placing our orders we returned to the table with an assortment of meats that included 1/2 pound of moist brisket, 1/2 pound of beef ribs, and 3 jalapeno cheese sausage links. All of the meat comes with slices of white bread, which my fellow eaters enjoyed, but I stayed away from knowing it would just take up space in my stomach that could be filled with meat. In the sides category we ordered mediums of the mac & cheese and the cucumber salad, but someone broke our agreement and got the largest container of Texas chili I had ever seen in my life. I couldn't complain, since I also snuck in an order of chipotle deviled eggs. Not having had deviled eggs in a long time, I forgot how delicious and satisfying of a taste they can be, and the chipotle mixed in added a smoky kick that jump started the entire BBQ meal. The brisket was indeed extremely moist, with great smoke rings and a flavor that balanced the fat of the meat with a fall of the bone tenderness. My one complaint was that to keep it moist, the brisket ended up having a lot of fat around the edges, and I am never a fan of eating the fat on any type of meat. You just need to be careful when adding the hot sauce and the BBQ sauce to distinguish fat from tender meat.

Moving onto the beef ribs, we discovered that the reason one person was not a fan of ribs, chicken wings, chicken legs/thighs, bone in pork chops, etc was not due to the fat, the messiness, or anything else. It was entirely due to "not liking bones". As in, he didn't like eating meat that had a bone in it. I think I will leave that statement alone and let you ponder it for a second...Despite our initial shock, we trimmed the meat off of the ribs and portioned it out for the three of us. I myself am not a big ribs fan (because it is minimal meat), and found that the ribs, while full of smokehouse goodness, felt a little overcooked, stringy and tough. Maybe the brisket had spoiled me, but the ribs were far and away the biggest disappointment. Luckily the sausage was still left on the plate, and it may be the greatest sausage I have ever eaten. After first slicing into it I knew I was in for a treat. I stared in awe as the cheese oozed out of the meat just by gently pressing down on the link. This specific type of sausage is made in Texas and shipped to New York, which I found out later, but at the time all I could do was gobble it up and wish we had doubled up on the sausage and skipped the ribs. It had a strong smoke to it, but the meat was distinctly flavored to the point where the smoke was more of an undertone than a primary flavor. The cheese couldn't really be tasted, but the oozing gooey texture added to the overall delight. After the final bite, which probably took about 20 seconds in total to eat, I realized that I needed water very quickly, as the jalapeno snuck up on me when I least suspected it. Overall though, the sausage was the highlight of the meal, and can't be missed.

As for sides, I have never seen such a big tub of chili before. It both turned me on and disgusted me, particularly because I was still really hungry and knew I could eat at least half of it if given the opportunity. Luckily (I think) someone else at the table took it upon them self to eat nearly half. The chili was tasty, like real Texas chili (no beans), but it could have used a bit more heat for my taste. Luckily, hot sauce was at the ready. The mac & cheese was tasty, made with ziti and oozing cheeses everywhere. The cucumber salad was a surprising hit, perhaps because it was cool and sweet, with a bit of tang from the vinegar. Compared to all the other dishes it made for a nice palate cleanser and cut the hot, spicy, smokey food we were consuming like madmen.

Topping off the meal my friends got banana pudding like you would remember at camp or the school cafeteria, except good. I went for the PB & J cupcake, which started falling apart after almost the first bite. The cupcake was stuffed with grape jam, and the frosting was made of peanut butter with reeses pieces topping it. After a few futile (and messy) attempts to finish eating it, I gave in and finished every last crumb with a fork. Needless to say, I was both happy with the fun desserts, and shocked that we all had room for it.

I will definitely be back to Hill Country, maybe for their all you can eat specials, and would recommend it to anyone that likes Texas BBQ, with a no frills attitude. Of course, don't forget about the New York prices.

Meat by the pound, from Texas

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Beer of the Week: Long Trail Ale

Long Trail Ale was first introduced to me during college when one of my roommates brought a case back from break. He was from Vermont, and that's where this tasty treat of a microbrew originates. Long Trail Ale is a dark amber ale, almost as bitter as some IPA's that I've tried, but not as harsh on the tongue. I'd almost compare it to Samuel Adams, except it doesn't make me gag with every sip. In fact, it reminds me of some of the German ales that I have tried that are full bodied, full of flavor, with a strong sharp and tangy finish. Tasting each sip, one gets a range from subtle sweetness, almost caramel, to a slight roasted flavor that I would imagine means the hops are roasted before being used. Maybe it's the association with Vermont, but this is the kind of beer I would picture an outdoorsmen or mountain climber enjoying after a long day out in the woods or hanging by a carabiner. Perhaps these guys would be cracking open a Long Trail, and eating a nice hearty meal to warm up and remind them of the good life.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 4
Pair with Food: Absolutely, particularly hearty fare like meat and potatoes, and anything with lots of carbs

Take a Hike

Monday, March 2, 2009

Condiment of the Week: Jamaican Hell Hot

I was just about to start writing about this condiment saying yes, yet another hot sauce, but then I read the full name on the label and it is actually "Baron Hall Farms Jamaican Hell Hot Pepper Concentrate". So there, I don't just write about hot sauces, I write about pepper concentrates too! To the average person, however, this is a hot sauce through and through. The big trend in hot sauces is to make it as hot and unbearable as possible, then come up with a creative way of marketing it (think insane double death hell sauce). A cool label, a crazy promotion, and a fun name later, maybe you've made it on the public radar. If you are like me, however, you like hot sauce for the flavors and spice that it adds dishes. Jamaican Hell Hot is exactly what it sounds like, a hot sauce bottled and made in Jamaica with extreme, long burning heat that sticks in the back of your throat to remind you that you put one drop too much on that piece of chicken. It warns you on the bottle that the hot sauce is "not radioactive although it could be". It even tell you to use it in moderation until you acclimate, as if natural selection must take place first. The difference between this sauce and others of its ilk is that it actually has a distinct flavor to go along with its heat. The sweetness of the peppers, along with a little bit of sugar give it a subtle fruity taste. Throw in a few unusual ingredients like ginger, pimento and cinnamon, and it suddenly becomes a great add to sauces and Spanish food. The overall combination is a disturbingly strong heat that packs a robust Caribbean flavor.

Favorite Use: Splashed sparingly over rice and beans
Strangest Use: Tuna Fish salad with apples - the heat pairs nicely with the sweetness of the apple.

Pepper Concentrate - Not Hot Sauce

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Beer of the Week: Blue Point Toasted Lager

A local brewery in Patchogue, Long Island, Blue Point brewery is known for its microbrews and seasonal beers that many a bar in New York serves with pride. Their most well known beer is a Toasted Lager, a delicious beer that combines great malt and hops, with a toasted caramel flavor that I cannot say I have ever tasted in another beer. When it first started being served in bars it was a bit of a novelty because it was both rare and delicious. Bars would run out of it so quickly, and you would have to switch to another beer after a while. This is no longer the case as I witness recently that places as far away as Hoboken have discovered that a flavored beer can still be a "guy" beer.

Unlike its fruit and chocolate beer cousins, the toasted flavor adds a tasty yet only slight hint of flavor, almost like lightly smoking a vegetable. When you first taste the beer you can clearly make out the toasted flavor, but quickly come to the realization that it is a rich and flavorful lager on par with much better known non-toasted lagers.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 3
Pair with Food: Yes, goes really well with light and subtle flavored food, such as fish.

Not to be confused with the Mussels

Monday, February 16, 2009

Restaurant: Pipa

Tapas, tapas, tapas. Sometimes I wonder if like saying candy man in front of the mirror three times they will magically appear in front of me like a wish come true. Is there any other concept that appeals to someone who loves food more than the idea of being able to taste so many different types of dishes without having to either waste food or stuff yourself? Having done my own personal exploration (although small) of Spain, and trying other cultures examples of tapas, I am always excited to try a new tapas restaurant. Luckily, a recent suggestion of a somewhat high-end tapas restaurant named Pipa did not disappoint.

Located within, technically, ABC carpet, Pipa uses their unusual space to the best of their advantage with low lighting, huge chandeliers and other furniture directly from ABC carpet. While you may wonder if people ever look at the price tags of these items and buy them, you are very quickly distracted by the vibrant bar scene (even on Tuesday when I went) and the mass communal tables that dominate the landscape. I highly recommend a reservation, unless your goal is to spend a long time waiting at the bar getting drunk and forgetting that you came for food. After being seated with about 20 other people, at an awkward corner of a large table, we quickly ordered a pitcher of Sangria before even opening the menu. Although delicious, I didn't find anything that special about the Sangria, but who can argue with booze?

The menu is vast, and separated into different types of tapas and bites to help you choose wisely. There are also larger portioned dishes that are entree size, but unless you really want Paella or other more standard Spanish fare, I would stick with the tapas. Why get paella at a tapas restaurant? That's like going to a seafood restaurant and ordering chicken. After a heated debate we settled on a handful of dishes, including a "mushroom coca", Spanish olives, "pulpo gallego", stuffed piquillo peppers, beef skewers, a potato dish and chicken croquettes.

The dishes ranged from great, to good, and downright bad, but luckily the majority fell into the great category. The standouts included the stuffed piquillo peppers, beef skewers and pulpo gallego. The peppers were stuffed with a rich mix of crab and shrimp and topped with a paprika based aioli that made for rich creamy goodness. The shrimp and crab mixture managed to stand up to the delicious sauce, and there is always a fondness in my heart for things stuffed into other things. Despite the inherent danger in skewers, I managed to eat the tender pieces of beef quickly and safely. They came with a pleasant, if forgettable, dipping sauce, but the meat was so perfectly cooked and marinated that neither of us bothered with the sauce after the first taste. The last of the great dishes was the pulpo gallego. A relatively simple dish on the menu, consisting of octopus, potatoes, olives and smoked paprika, it actually had quite a complex flavor profile that dances around on the tongue with each bite. Perhaps the most impressive part of the whole dish was the octopus, which almost melted in my mouth. While I do perk up in general when eating well-cooked octopus, this dish alone will make want to come back for more.

The olives we ordered were delicious, but then again, they are still just a huge plate of olives to snack on in between courses. The good dishes included a large circle of potatoes and chicken croquettes. I honestly could not tell you how the potatoes were created, and though they were tasty, I wish I hadn't eaten them and had saved room for more of the above mentioned dishes. The croquettes were actually quite tasty, but they lacked a strong and flavorful sauce to back up the crunchy and moist croquette. The most disappointing of all the dishes, although it had the most promise, was the Mushroom Coca. A flat bread topped with wild mushrooms, manchego cheese, caramelized onions, fresh figs, serrano ham, toasted almonds and truffle oil, it had pretty much everything you could imagine wanting. The problem, however, was that the ingredients didn't meld well together at all, and instead had many individual distinct notes that left the dish only half eaten. The wild mushrooms, combined with the truffle oil, caused a much too earthy taste, which dominated the sweetness of the onions and figs. Manchego cheese and Serrano ham, two standouts on their own, were fighting the sweet earthy flavor just for a place at the table. In the end, we ended up just eating the ham off the top of the bread and leaving the rest of the dish untouched.

Dessert, as often is the case, was not something I was craving, instead choosing to eat a few more olives since the plate was so huge. I'm sure they do some nice desserts, but when I'm at a tapas restaurant with such diverse and delicious options as Pipa, I will always order one more savory dish.

Tapas and Home Furnishings

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Condiment of the Week: Cucumber Raita

Defining cucumber raita as a "condiment" might be stretching the definition a bit, but I like to think that it should be classified with ketchup and mayo if more people ate it regularly in the US. Perhaps its Indian origins, and not many people actually knowing what it is has something to do with it.Raita , particularly the cucumber type, is very common in South Indian cuisine and is often served alongside traditional dishes whether here in the US, Britain, or India. It is cool and refreshing, providing a reprieve to many spicy dishes by giving your tongue a break it needs.

The primary ingredients are yogurt, mint, and cucumbers with a number of variations that can include cilantro, cayenne, paprika and toasted cumin seeds. Occasionally I have had it where it is very sweet, almost like vanilla instead of plain yogurt was used, and I do not recommend it made like this. The yogurt is meant as a foil to the spicy food you are eating, not as a primary taste to the dish. The idealraita has the flavor of the cucumber and the mint coming through on the palate, while the yogurt gets you ready for yet another bite of something that makes the tongue tingle with satisfaction.

Favorite Use: Topping spicy Indian food or on the side for naan dipping
Strangest Use: Marinade for chicken that gives it an unusual and tender texture and flavor.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Dish: New Orleans Food

So this technically is not a specific dish or food, but it's my blog so I am breaking my own rules. After a recent excursion down to New Orleans for a weekend of fun, I had the rare opportunity to try a number of different famous Cajun dishes and restaurants. Since this is the only part of the trip I can really talk about (and remember), I will try to go through as much of it as possible. Our first stop was an old place called Mother's. The restaurant is a famous old New Orleans institution, where there are no pretensions or fancy food, just good home cooking. It's the type of place, like Katz's, that when you walk in you feel like you are going to get some old world home cooking like you grew up with. While there I got to try two famous dishes that just bleed New Orleans - Debris and a Catfish Po Boy. For those of you that aren't familiar, debris is the pieces of Roast Beef that falls off into the drippings while roasting. It is incredibly tender, juicy and tastes succulent whether topping a sandwich or with a side of grits. The catfish po boy sounds like a simple concept, but near perfect execution is tough. Delicately grilled with cajun seasoning and on a fresh french roll with dressing, creole mustard, tartar sauce, lettuce and pickles, it was both delicate, filling and savory all at the same time.

Our trip later that day was a little out of the way from Bourbon street, but apparently well known - Jacquesimos Cafe. The table shared braised beef cheeks, some kind of alligator crawfish cheescake, and fried calamari. The beef cheeks were somewhat lacking in flavor, and the fried calamari was, well, fried calamari. Honestly, I don't think fried calamari really gets me all that excited anymore now that every single restaurant in the world seems to have it on the menu. The savory cheescake, however, was delicious and almost eye opening because you just couldn't quite place what the ingredients were, but knew it was amazing with every bite. Ironically, the best part of the appetizers was probably the corn bread muffins topped with fresh parsley and garlic. They were so good we kept asking for more, and a certain someone actually stole a bunch in a napkin for later. My main course was Cajun BBQ Shrimp with mashed sweet potatoes and smothered cabbage. The sides were tasty, and the bbq sauce was a great mix of spicy and sweet, but the shrimp themselves were a little over cooked and despite at first liking it, the heads being on eventually just led to frustration.

After that eating extravaganza, and the drinking that occurred after, we had to get something to help the hangovers the next morning. Luckily, we found a Po Boy place that had something called a Mufelatta. Basically it is the biggest sandwich you will ever see on a great french bread with salami, ham, cheese and a briney, tongue tingling, olive salad all pressed down and heated until every bite explodes in your mouth with flavor. Not only did I finish the entire plate and all the olive salad that had fallen out, but I kept thinking about it the rest of the day wanting another. Luckily, beignets from Cafe Du Monde were able to distract me from eating way too much. Honestly, beignets are not my thing, but I can see why they are famous for their flavor and texture at Cafe Du Monde.

To top off the eating adventure in New Orleans we went to an old place called Mulates. Very much a family style restaurant, we feasted on everything and anything they could fry up for us. We had fried alligator, fried crawfish, fried catfish, fried oysters, fried clams, french fries, and fried crab cakes. Basically the only things we had that weren't fried were frogs legs, grilled alligator and some jambalaya. The grilled alligator actually convinced me that it was better fried, because grilled it comes off a little too chewy and gamey. All in all, I was happy to get more gator, and happy to finally have some crawfish so that I could claim that I ate pretty much everything New Orleans is known for in a single weekend.

After this trip, I don't know if I will need to eat for quite a while. Luckily, I doubt that is really true.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Beer of the Week: Brahma

With the chilly winter weather upon us, I thought it would be nice to talk about a beer that just makes me think of summer, partying and beautiful women. Brahma is one of the most popular beers from Brazil, and whether due to its unique bottle shape and lack of label, or simply its refreshing flavor, many that see it want more after just a few sips. Brahma is a pale lager that has a slight caramel flavor, although it probably is hard to distinguish from the flavor of a Corona (but don't add any limes). It is easy sipping, and according to the company it embodies the creative spirit known as "Ginga". How it does this exactly, I have no idea. Perhaps drink enough and you come up with creative things the bottle shape reminds you of? Most importantly, if you are going to drink Brahma make sure it is ice cold. And when I mean ice cold, I mean your hands should feel frozen after hold the bottle for only a few sips.

Number of Beers Drank in one Sitting: 4
Pair With Food: Chips & Salsa

Brazilian Curves

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Joe's Shanghai

After a long hiatus due to a busy new job, lack of internet, and pretty much any excuse I can think of that will not let me admit to general laziness I have decide to get this rolling again. Sadly, over the last 6 months I have eaten in numerous places I would love to write about, but the details are now to few and far between to write coherently. Luckily, I had the pleasure of some fantastic Chinese food on Christmas Eve at Joe's Shanghai that inspired me to return to writing.

My friend swears by Joe's Shanghai, and as any New Yorker knows, everyone has their "best" Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Plus, any New Yorker knows that to Jewish people, Chinese food is a close second when it comes to a religious experience. After Joe's Shanghai's surprisingly fresh, delicious, and well portioned food I found myself questioning if it should still be second on the religious experience scale.

Our party of seven had to wait an hour outside on Christmas Eve, but my understanding was that this was standard. Upon being seated, before we could even open the menu the waiter asked us if we wanted soup dumplings (the house specialty). Never having experienced such a treat, but a lover of all things dumpling, I hesitantly asked my friend how many orders should we get. He is quite the dumpling connoisseur, so confidently he said 1 crab and 1 pork. As two other people stared at our noisy group (tables are shared, unless your group is 9 or 10 people), we excitedly debated the number of dishes we needed, and how to evenly balance them between vegetable, meat, and if fish should even be an option. The order ended up like this:

Cold Noodles with Sesame Sauce
Double Cooked Pork
Sesame Chicken
Beef with Broccoli
Vegetable Lo-Mien
Sauteed Spinach with Garlic

To top this all off, we of course had to get multiple rounds of Tsingtao, which I imagine is the official Jewish drink of Christmas. No sooner had we placed our order than the soup dumplings had arrived. To attempt to describe these moist flavorful nuggets of steamed goodness probably won't do them justice. Although the crab flavor was not that distinct, the meat was well flavored, cooked perfectly, and a delightful mouthful. The dough of the dumpling was steamed, a little chewy, but by no means the thick, flavorless shell that too many restaurants serve. The highlight of the dish is of course the soup that is within the dumpling. The broth is exquisite, with a strong, but not overpowering lemon flavor. Amazingly the rest of the dumpling is infused with this flavor, but still manages to hit your tongue with all the other tastes that the full dumpling provides. I could probably eat a bowl of just the broth, and may have to see if this is on the menu next time.

After the amazing first course, and the arguing over who got the 8th dumpling, the cold noodles with sesame sauce were an extreme disappointment. The noodles were a bit overcooked, and the sauce was watery and tasteless. Perhaps some people like spaghetti noodles and a very liquidy sesame sauce, but me, I like thinner noodles, and a sauce that sticks to the noodles with a distinct flavor and even a slight hint of spice. The best, in my mind, are a balance between a little spicy, a little sweet, and plenty savory. With this disappointment firmly behind me, we prepared for the main courses, which came out seemingly all at once. The double cooked pork was excellent, in a nice brown sauce, and featuring tender crispy pork with a mix of your standard veggies. The nice surprise was the still crispy cabbage. This is such an underused vegetable in cooking, and it adds a distinct flavor and texture that made a good dish great.

The beef with broccoli was tasty, and the meat of higher quality than I expected. I must admit, however, I'm not a big fan of this dish in general, so thank god for the spicy red pepper sauce on the table to give this a little bit of a kick. The same must be said for the vegetable lo-mien. I don't know how vegetarians do it, but I would get pretty bored eating this dish without chunks of meat on a regular basis. There was nothing I could point to that made the dish bad, and in fact it was distinct for not being greasy at all compared to your average lo-mien dishes. Honestly though, would you waste prime stomach space during a hearty meal on this dish? I think not.

Despite everything else that came before it, the two highlights of the main meal (dumplings not included) were the water spinach with garlic, and the sesame chicken. I know, sesame chicken is not exactly fine dining, but when made right it really stands out. The chicken was all white meat, no fat, and was fried until crispy with a batter that actually accentuated the flavor of the chicken instead of muting it. On the side was fresh green blanched broccoli, still with a slight snap to it. One of my biggest pet peeves is Chinese food where the meat is dumped on top of broccoli, and it is a clear after thought, usually over cooked or greasy. Topping off the chicken and broccoli was a deliciously sweet and tangy sauce that was both instantly recognizable as sesame chicken sauce, while being surprising at every bite. Perhaps it was that the sauce was gooey, without being overwhelmingly full of corn starch, and hit the right balance between sweet and salty that it caught my attention. Whatever the reason, it goes down as the best sesame chicken I have ever had, and I wish we had 2 orders instead of one. The other great dish was actually a side dish. As mentioned in the past, I love a side order of spinach, and the water spinach with garlic was perfectly cooked, bright green and fresh, and flavored with salt and garlic. All in all, I could have just eaten the spinach and the chicken and been happy all night.

Despite all the food that had been consumed, a debate ensued about what we should have for dessert. After a number of minutes of crazy ideas, we decided the best dessert was another order of pork soup dumplings. The smiles and giggles of glee that everyone expressed as they showed up at our table meant we had made the right decision. We also clearly made the right decision to go to Joe's Shanghai on Christmas. I know I will be making more trips to Chinatown soon, and well before the next Jews night out.

Take a trip to dumpling heaven.