Thursday, June 30, 2011

Road Trip: Crab Fest

For years now, my brother has been making me jealous will tales of summer afternoons eating crabs to the point of stomach combustion at a shack of a restaurant on the Maryland shore. This year, my brother’s birthday seemed as good excuse as any to rent a car and make the long drive from New York City to the far off land of Annapolis and a small but busy restaurant called Cantler’s Riverside Inn.

Arriving in the middle of the afternoon, it was clear by the crowds three deep at the bar, more patrons waiting by the dock with canned beer, not to mention the picnic tables with guests shoved elbow to elbow and back to back, that Cantler’s is a more than a local favorite. Cantler’s is an institution.

A bucket of beer and some clam strip appetizers later, our table began to fill up with the offerings of the sea. Jumbo shrimp were steamed and served on a bed of sautéed onions and red peppers. Steamers with their phallic extensions were primed for dipping in clarified butter and dragging through Old Bay seasoning we liberally spread out over the paper table covering.

The piece de resistance- the reason we were at Cantler’s to start with- were the Maryland blue crabs. Crabs were ordered by the multiple of dozen. Ours came out steamed, mounded on a metal baking sheet and doused in Old Bay. A friend to my right showed me how to “find the seatbelt” on the belly of the crab- a long skinny piece of shell that when pulled upon released the clasp of the two shell halves revealing the treasure of the interior. My brother found this process too tedious and instead instructed his girlfriend on the insertion and twisting of a knife at the seam to pry open the hard exoskeleton. Perhaps a bit more primal, the knife tactic proved an effective technique in the vanquishing of crabs.

The rest of the crab fest is a blur of hands covered in yellowing Old Bay and green “crab poop”, both of which were indelicately wiped off on a pile of paper napkins between shoveling mouthfuls of sweet crabmeat. Buckets of Landshark Lager disappeared, a bag of homemade cookies for the birthday were passed around, and the sun dipped a little lower on the horizon.

Only two hours had passed since I squeezed myself into a picnic bench on the patio at Cantler’s. Yet the dizzying array of fruit de la mare and my seemingly insatiable appetite meant that getting out of that seat was slightly more difficult than getting in had been. A five-hour drive down on the I-95 for crabs was no small gift to my brother, but given my love of crab, this was most definitely the gift that gave back.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Just Like the First Time: Eataly

To say I didn’t know what to expect of Eataly would not entirely be correct. After the media deluge leading up to the opening and the months of coverage that followed, I certainly knew the concept: all Italy, all the time eating and shopping extravaganza. But like other notable “first time” life experiences, as much as you understand the idea, nothing can really prepare you for the actual experience.

I came at 11am to meet a friend for lunch hoping to avoid the notorious crowds said to have been there since day one. The strategy played out as at Il Pesce, the seafood themed restaurant, we had our pick of tables, the rest of the open dining area was empty.

The early arrival meant we had plenty of time to observe the camera crew and its entourage touring the facilities as well as to stare up at the large signs for Birra Moretti above the open beer cooler and Barilla in the pasta aisle. Even without the crowds, the cameras along with these reality show-worthy product placements gave a Hollywood, Live Nation feel to a gourmet food hall supposedly serious about food.

Meanwhile we noticed Barilla was not the only large sign. From our observation post we could see that signs appeared to cover every square inch of wall space. A poster behind my head was a lovely, clear pictorial of the different fish served in the restaurant along with a small note on where each is sourced. Most other signs however (and there are many, many of them) were densely worded such that I would need to have my nose inches away in order to read the lengthy descriptions of what appeared to be everything from the bios of farmer suppliers to a an exhaustive history on the origins of Prosciutto.

As my friend pointed out, even if she walked up to the wall where many of these signs were posted it would be of no use as so many of them were several feet above her head. Maybe Eataly also sells ladders?

The disadvantage of our early arrival was that even at 11:20am, the time we placed our order, most of the specials were not yet prepped. Our choices, though enough, were not as many as people who arrived at 11:45. For a fish restaurant that prides itself on rotating daily selections based on what is fresh, the specials are part of the draw. I felt a little cheated.

But whatever disappointment I felt being too early for the blackboard specials evaporated after one bite of fish. I have eaten chef David Pasternak’s octopus in the past and knew better than to pass up the Puglia-themed special-of-the-month: tender grilled octopus with summer beans and red wine vinegar. A whole pan seared flounder was a vision in crispy brown skin, accompanied by molten sweet black figs, a small pile of toasted hazelnuts and pine nuts, and sprigs of tarragon.

The “Learn” component to Eataly’s mission- “Eat. Shop. Learn.”- apparently extends beyond wordy signs to pedantic servers. Our server expertly described specials but also told my companion and I no less than three times that “crudo is like sashimi only better”. My thought on all three occasions was that if someone is in Eataly and knows what sashimi is they probably know what crudo is too.

Annoying waiter aside, one cannot fault the chef or the fish because the trio crudo of the day was beyond reproach. Most sashimi let along crudo wouldn’t compare to the quality of that at Il Pesce.

Having Eaten well, and Learned, well, not much, I set out to explore the “Shop” element of Eataly. Fortified by a rather excellent cappuccino from Caffe Lavazza, Eataly’s espresso bar, I made my way through the sparkly aisles. Focusing my eyes so as to avoid the distracting signs I saw delicious cured meats, rare mushrooms, brightly colored housewares, and ethereal confections. But in the end, I left empty handed. It was all a little much. I didn’t know what, if anything, was worth buying here that I could not find at other specialty markets nearer my apartment.

I came in to Eataly wide-eyed and expectant, I left slightly confused and over-whelmed but strangely satisfied. For my first time, that’s not a bad result at all.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Step Aside Turkey, the New Sandwich has Arrived

Pastrami is for Sundays at Jewish delis with the parents. Turkey and avocado is so Los Angeles circa 2000. And don’t even get me started on the chain restaurants that think pumping out the nauseating smell of “fresh baked bread” will make me hungry for lunch.

The new sandwich has arrived. Direct from South East Asia.

Anyone who has spent time in Vietnamese immigrant enclaves searching for the best bowl of pho is probably familiar with the other street food staple, banh mi. Banh mi, perhaps the best-known South East Asian sandwich, is found on almost every city street corner in Saigon and Hanoi. There the French bread sandwich is near ubiquitous- piles of baguettes split down the middle and layered with pate, pickled vegetables and spicy chilies fill the carts of vendors and the bellies of the hungry denizens.

In America, just as banh mi is breaking out of the immigrant enclaves and into the mainstream, new chefs are already playing with the concept of the South East Asian sandwich with delicious results.

Num Pang in Manhattan is one such restaurant that is skipping over the introduction to the Asian sandwich and smacking you in the face with their bold sandwich pairings. Chef Ratha Chau styled Num Pang’s sandwiches after his Cambodian heritage- fish, meat, and vegetables are piled onto crisp and crunchy semolina mini-baguettes and smothered in Num Pang’s signature sauce, a sort of Sriracha laced mayonnaise. Shredded pickled carrots, thinly sliced cucumber, and cilantro add distinctive South East Asian flair to regular offerings like a gooey pulled pork in honey laced sauce and coconut tiger shrimp.

But it is the rotating specials that really get me excited. Just steps away from Union Square, I like to imagine that the caramelized leeks in the grilled mackerel sandwich were purchased at the farmer’s market that same day. Indeed, the restaurant does draw inspiration from its proximity to seasonal produce with a “market” gazpacho- a nice rendition of the classic summer soup with tart early season tomato flavor and a nice sweet and spicy balance that keeps it Asian- a cool accompaniment to whichever spicy, sweet, salty, tart sandwich is eaten alongside.

At The Spice Table in Downtown Los Angeles, it is bright, vinegary coleslaw in clear plastic tubs that serves as pallet cleanser for the Asian sandwich spread at this Singaporean-Vietnamese newcomer. The “Cold Cut” sandwich is a hefty version of the more typically thin banh mi. A long baguette is layered with pate, ham, and headcheese, stuffed with pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro leaves, and spicy jalapeno slices. A recent visit featured a rich pork belly sandwich special that was like Banh Mi 2.0. Other regular sandwich offerings like fried catfish and chicken keep most of the same fixings as the Cold Cut but add in the occasional spring of mint or hint of lemongrass. Rest assured that even if the names are a bit ordinary- chicken, meatball, cold cut- Spice Table is no Subway.

If the lines at Num Pang the brisk business and Spice Table are any indication, the citizens of New York and Los Angeles are catching on to what the people of Saigon have know for years: a sandwich just tastes better when layered with sweet, spicy, tangy South East Asian flavors. And who knows? If banh mi really is the new sandwich, maybe pate and pickled vegetables will be the new Subway special.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why British Food Doesn't Suck

What is British food exactly? And while we are at it, what is French food or American Food? When the best food in the United States is often a Californian take on Italian, a Texan take on Mexican, or a New York take on French, even American food is hard to define. British food, long maligned for bland tasting meat pies, soggy chips, and mushy peas, has developed over the years, just like the United States and even France.

With the long history of colonialism and now influx of immigrants, Britain has picked up a cosmopolitan mix of peoples and their foods along the way. That Brits have long loved Indian curries is no secret, but upscale South East Asian, Italian-style wine bars, and even artisanal Japanese noodle making are infiltrating the heart of the British dining scene.

With that in mind, on a recent trip to London I set out to discover some new British restaurant arrivals drawing inspiration and menus from different parts of the globe. If my research is any indication, the world continues to shrink and the food in London is better for it. One can only imagine what “British” food will pop up next.

Koya: There is nothing like long, hot, homemade noodles bathed in rich miso broth on a cool London day. Koya, in Soho, is a narrow and brightly lit enclave of traditional Japanese udon in the heart of the theater district. It would be an understatement to say my bowlful of handmade noodles in miso with ground pork and green onion was a mouthful. But I was up for the challenge, taking the noodles one dip of the chopsticks at a time, slurping up the umami rich both between bites. Koya also succeeded with an unusual and gamey miso cured venison special and crisp green salad topped with fried lotus, all washed down with homemade ginger tea.

Bocca di Lupo: If the difficulty in getting a reservation is any indication, Bocca di Lupo is no secret to Londoners. Known best on the West side of the pond as the author of 2010’s “The Geometry of Pasta” cookbook, chef Jacob Kenedy is turning out the sort of consistently excellent Italian fare that makes you want to finish your plate and order again because each successive course seems to get better and better. On my recent visit, the much-lauded fried balls of mozzarella were the least interesting dish if not bad at all. A plate of crudo- sea bream, red prawn, and creamy scallop- came drizzled in rosemary oil. Herbaceous and yet distinctly of the sea, it was as if the fish had taken a stroll through a pine forest and emerged delicately scented on the plate. Orchiette pasta was tossed with crumbled spicy homemade sausage and arugula. While sausage of pork and foie gras, rustic in presentation, was nothing but decadent in the mouth.

Cay Tre: Perhaps it has yet to figure out food costs, but Cay Tre, a classy Vietnamese newcomer, is loading their pho with beef. In the classic Vietnamese noodle soup, rare slivers of beef normally act as more of a garnish than a focal point. At Cay Tre, the bowl is all about the beef. Loaded with sirloin, tendon, and brisket, their pho is a meatier version of the classic while still redolent with star anise and filled with the biting grassiness of greens and the licorice of torn basil tangled together with just cooked rice noodles. Two elegantly fried head-on prawns embedded in a cake of grated sweet potato was a tasty starter when rolled in lettuce and dipped in a classic sauce of vinegar, chilies, and sugar.

Polpo: Polpo, part of a hip 18 month-old mini-chain of London wine bars, is the one that started it all. Even though Polpo is Italian, don’t come expecting pasta, because you might not find it. But do come open to a raucous dining scene that might well be going off into the ten o’clock hour on a Monday night, unusual in this city. Pizzettas are small and thin crusted with a nice chewy interior and crisp edge. Faro might star in lieu of risotto as it did on a recent night paired with rich braised lamb. Asparagus was in peak season on that visit, served simply and deliciously blanched and smothered in anchovy butter. Wine is delight to drink at Polpo as many options come by the quarter, half, or full bottle. And should you arrive early or come without a reservation, a speakeasy hidden in the basement appropriately called The Campari Bar is a delightful way to spend the wait over an aperitif. Or linger late take in a nightcap downstairs. That is if you didn’t close down the joint over dinner like I did.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Brunch in NYC. Still Searching.

As an eater, the main benefit of living in New York versus being a visitor is that I once again have the opportunity to be adventurous. As a tourist for the last five years, usually visiting on a tight schedule, I have been passing up eating at newer establishments in favor of places I have frequented for years knowing that come the end of the meal I will definitely be pleased.

Now that I am once again a resident, checking out new restaurants at brunch is a fairly low risk bet and one that I am happy to wager on.

That being said, one weekend and two brunches at new restaurants down, and I’m still looking for a new restaurant to add to the “tried and true” list.

The well healed crowds mingling outside signal that Gemma is clearly a downtown scene. The friendly face of an old friend at the hostess stand set a good tone, one that was quickly drowned out by the construction on Bowery as backhoes relentlessly tore up the street not 30 feet away from our outdoor dining perch. But my friends and I were not to be deterred from our Saturday reunion. Unfortunately, the food was only sometimes as lively as our conversation. A limp salad of shaved artichoke and truffle oil was lacking in character save for the dominating truffle. Pancakes and a pizza both came over-cooked, the pizza dry as a cardboard take out box. The saving grace was polenta fries, crisp and golden on the outside, molten cornmeal goodness in the middle baptized in truffle oil. As our stoned or hung-over waiter lost his train of thought and slowly regained it half way through our drink refill order, it was a relief to have a basket of the restaurant’s signature banana bread on hand, a small example of excellence if not quite reason enough to return.

A day later, another reunion with a good friend, this time in the West Village at Bistro de la Gare, the year-old Hudson St. cafe. The menu- divided into “Yankee”, “Puebla”, and “Market”- should have been my first cause for concern. Reminder to self: don’t eat Tex-Mex outside of the southwest, you will more often than not be disappointed. Let’s just say that in spite of the gracious waiter, the lovely and quiet backyard patio, the delicious rosé by the glass, it took me several hours for my stomach to recover from the edible, at best, breakfast of chili rellenos. A volcano of red sauce tried in vain to cover for tasteless chilies stuffed with too much cheese all over rice that redefined bland. A bite into a whole clove not fully blended into the tomato sauce was the proverbial nail in the coffin of the dish, long before the indigestion set in.

While the food might not have satisfied, at least the company did. All the more reason to get out there and do it again next weekend. Same city, but the search continues.

Gemma, 335 Bowery, New York, NY 10003

Bistro de la Gare, 626 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Tale of Two Ramens

Adjacent to the 99 Cent Store at the bleak intersection of Western and 182nd St in the working class town of Gardena, California is quite possibly the best darn Japanese noodle soup this side of the Pacific. Don’t let the unoriginal name or overly simplistic menu scare you. One slurp of the broth and bite of chewy noodles and it is clear than Gardena Ramen is anything but ordinary.

Beneath the glare of fluorescent lighting, handwritten menus taped to the wall declare the two choices in Japanese and English- shoyu and miso. Stick with the shoyu. The broth is nuanced and complex without the showy additions of so many new guard ramen establishments. All the better that the toppings- thinly sliced pork, bamboo shoots, boiled sliced egg, green onions- are just enough to add color with a bit of texture and flavor, but not so much as to interfere with the real stars of the bowl: noodles and broth.

If you are lucky there might be three or four other diners spaced out widely between Formica tables, silently slurping at bowls, and that’s during the dinner rush. But the silence is no matter, the better to enjoy the purity of near perfection that Gardena Ramen turns out day after day. No glamour, just great ramen.

Across the country a new wave of ramen is popping up in New York City. Not breaking with tradition but perhaps testing the boundaries, Ippudo, just three blocks south of Union Square, is garnering attention from the press, and crowds, for innovating with the classic while remaining true to the vital components of noodles and broth.

Clearly something about this nouvelle ramen is appealing to the locals- lines snake out the door when most restaurants are running early bird specials- the young and hip eagerly wait to rub elbows at one of the four dozen or so seats that pack the small, sleekly decorated room. On a recent night, the name of my chosen ramen, “Akamaru Modern”, was a hint that this was no ordinary Japanese noodle soup. Ippudo does a twist on classic Tonkotsu noodle soup while adding to it a special house blend miso paste, pork, cabbage, scallions, kikurage (a Japanese mushroom), and garlic oil. I opted for the addition of a seasoned salt boiled egg and was not disappointed.

What Ippudo lacks in the sense of discovery I might get from stumbling upon a strip mall treasure in Southern Los Angeles, it makes up for in the bowl. Flavors are surprising and bolder than the classics I have been filling my belly with in California, but the essence it still the same: chewy noodles and rich, complex pork broth. If Gardena Ramen is making noodles and broth the way of the Japanese grandmother you wish you had, then Ippudo is the brazen child, learning from tradition but striking out on its own to forge new paths. There is a place for both styles of ramen, and just as I will gladly follow to the path of the new, there’s no place like home especially when that home is Gardena Ramen.

Gardena Ramen, 1840 West 182nd Street, Torrance, CA 90504-4402

Ippudo, 65 4th Ave, New York, NY 10003