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