Friday, March 30, 2012

Bánh Mì Saigon

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in TriBeCa, reporting for the very first time for jury duty.  I found myself actually looking forward to it; I’d never done it before and it was a chance to do something a little different on a workday.  I got to walk a whole new path to my destination, and I got to revisit my old high school stomping grounds for lunch.  

That first day of jury duty was itself unremarkable but for the long lunch break we were granted.  Though the official lunch hours were 1 – 2, by noon it became obvious that the judges were not going to be calling anybody, and we were told that we were free to go and be back by two.  Now, if I’d had a mere hour to procure my lunch, I’d have made a decision lickety-split and been done with it.  That I found myself with two hours made the decision that much tougher.  It was also excessively gorgeous that day, and I found myself ambling around, not paying much mind to my rumbling belly.  I fetched some horchata, and set to wandering.  

I passed by so many potential lunch destinations, but, in typical fashion, couldn’t settle on a single one.  I resisted the pull of Morgan's Market, a stalwart of my Stuy days, where I sat on the stoop outside with my grilled cheese deluxe (with tomatoes, obvs)  far more frequently than I'd like to admit.  So I strolled, and suddenly it was 1:30, and I was forced to make a decision lest my fellow potential jurors be forced to listen to my stomach grumble angrily at me for the next few hours (which ended up being only about hour as we were released way early; #jurydutywin).  Like the professional procrastinator I am, once under the gun, I was able to quickly settle on what I wanted.  And that was a bánh mì.  I often crave the salty, pickley sandwiches, but I don’t often find myself near Chinatown when those cravings hit.  I had to take advantage. 

I marched on over to  bánh mì Saigon and placed an order for a #4, the  bánh mì Pate Cha: Vietnamese ham and pate and retreated to a park to enjoy.  The sandwich came, as is traditional with bánh mì, on a crispy rice flour baguette, yielding but crispy, and not too flavorful so as to detract from the cacophony of flavor within.  Lightly pickled carrots and daikon radish and strips of cucumber aplenty helped offset the richer flavors of the duo of pork.  Vietnamese ham, or pork roll, is an interesting thing, almost like a salty, delicious Vietnamese gyro made of pork.  The pate brings a mild funk to the sandwich.  Mayo joins the party to add some moisture and tie together the funk, the salt and the acid with some creaminess.    Cilantro brings freshness and keeps the palate from being overwhelmed.  Though not the best bánh mì I've had, it's a fine example of the form.  

Banh Mi Saigon
198 Grand Street (b/w Mulberry & Mott)
New York, NY

(212) 941-1541

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Newport, RI: Brick Alley Pub & Restaurant

About, oh, a month ago (wow, am I behind on these posts), Rob and I took a little weekend jaunt over to Newport, Rhode Island with our friends C&C.  We'd never been before, and we were able to snag a pretty good deal on a vacation home since apparently not many people favor New England beach town destinations in the dead of winter. 

We went armed with a bunch of dining options from my friend Sheera, a trusty source of food recommendations.  We arrived in Newport in time for a late-ish dinner thanks to the trusty I-95 traffic, and wanted someplace casual and good.  Sheera had high praise for Brick Alley pub, and a quick Google search turned up a number of encouraging articles, including the fact that Bon Appetit named Brick Alley’s lobster roll one of the best in America.   

We were pretty voracious by the time we sat down around 9:30, obviously past prime dinnertime, as most of the tables were wrapping up and we were the last to be seated.  We studied the immense menu (and ridiculous drink / beer list) and proceeded to over-order.  

Not even close to actually being a slider, but no less delicious for it

First up, some Ahi Tuna Sliders.  The waitress beamed when we ordered these, and they were good, not life changing by any means, but perfectly tasty and great for sharing  And certainly one of the lighter options on the pub-fare-heavy menu. 

Apparently the progeny of one of the 13 best recipes published by Bon Appetit
in its first 50 years
Next, the Portugese Clams, another dish that Bon Appetit apparently loves, going so far as to name it in its 50th anniversary issues as one of the 13 best recipes in the history of the magazine (per the note on the menu).  For a little touristy spot with a giant, pages long menu listing among its edibles nachos and spinach artichoke dip, Brick Alley has sure received its fair share of legit accolades.  The clams were delicious – meaty but not chewy, salty but not thirst-inducing, and that broth was utterly chugable.  Reading the menu quickly, we expected chorizo in the dish, but instead found chouriço, a Portuguege sausage that seemed more closely related to kielbasa than chorizo.   One of the 13 best recipes I imagine Bon Appetit published in its first 50 years?  Not sure, but it hit the spot. 
Habanero on the left; normalcy on the right

Robbie has a bit of a wing problem.  He might claim it an affinity rather than a problem, but whenever wings are on the menu, it’s like he has blinders on and can see nothing else.  Typically, the hotter the wings the better for the Robster.  So once I saw habanero wings on the menu, with a disclaimer (“may not be returned due to ‘too hot’”) no less, I knew they’d be appearing on our table.  The waitress, bless her heart, managed to talk Mr. WingFace into going halfsies with the habanero and filling the rest of the order up with the Rhode Island Red Hot Chicken Wings.  

As an attorney, I can vouch for the legally binding nature of this  document.
This turned out to be very sage advice.  If the disclaimer on the menu weren’t ominous enough, the release that Robbie had to sign seemed to seal the deal – he was in for some heat. He made it through a couple of those habanero wings, taming the fire in his mouth with his boozy mudslide; our friend Chris took one for the team as well, also requiring the solace of Rob's cold, creamy beverage.  I’m not a chicken wing fan at all, but I couldn’t resist trying a bite. They were, indeed, hot as shit.  Not wanting to totally kill my taste buds, I kept it at that; Rob admitted that his were useless after those wings. 

Lobstery, New Englandy goodness

But really, I was in it for the lobster roll.  I have a weird thing with lobster rolls.  I love them in theory, but I very rarely order them because I know there’s only so much mayo-slathered seafood I can handle.  When I do order them, I am typically skeeved out by them after the third bite.  And three bites of a lobster roll is hardly a good investment.  But I expected a lot from one named among six of the best in America – I doubt just any mayo-bomb would make that cut.  And in any event, was in the mood for it.  And it was good. Really good.  Big, juicy chunks of lobster, tossed but not drowned in mayo, with a deliciously awesome, buttery split-top bun.  It was utterly enjoyable, even the next day.  But all those apps (and the bingeing in which I’d drunkenly, embarrassingly indulged the night before) did me in; despite my best intentions, I had room for jut a few bites.  Not even enough to make it to the point where hoisting the roll up off of the plate was a viable option.  Thankfully, we were staying in a rental home with plenty of fridge space, so into a doggy bag it went. 

This plate was hubcap-sized
Rob had the generously portioned short rib, which could’ve tasted like hot flaming ass and it wouldn’t have made a difference after those wings.  The bite I stole was salty, but good; the accompanying creamed spinach a fine version of the form.  The majority of this came home with us as well.   I’d be loath not to mention that the short rib came with access to the unlimited salad bar (including bread and soup), which was hardly necessary given the amount of food we’d ordered. 

C&C went splitsies ordered a Buffalo Chicken Salad and Fish Tacos,.  Since both dishes were handily demolished, I’d have to imagine they were well-received. 
Far from fine dining, Brick Alley seems perfectly suited to its surroundings. Tasty, plentiful food right in the heart of Newport's tourist drag.  Though we’d long been the only table dining, there was a solid bar scene going, and we didn’t feel rushed out of the place at all.  Then a crowd, bedecked in green and black, some with fuzzy pints of Guiness atop their heads, entered and invited us to join them in the Great Guiness Toast.  Not the types to turn down the chance to take part in setting a world record (or free beer), we accepted; the perfect capper to our admittedly gluttonous meal.  Hey, we’d turned down dessert*, a little beer wouldn’t hurt. 

* I suppose one could argue we’d eaten dessert throughout the meal through the stolen sips from Rob’s many mudslides. I say, irrelevant. 

140 Thames St.
Newport, RI
(401) 859-6334

Thursday, March 22, 2012


We've got some early adopters here, huh?  Spotted on the street seemingly minutes after the deal to bring Tebow to the Jets was announced:

Good thing that snag wasn't fatal to the trade, eh boys?

The twittersphere was immediately abuzz, and incredibly entertaining:

SportsNation Jeremy Lin is now the 2nd best bounce passer in NY. 

Going to be interesting to see how this one plays out this season.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Horchata Chronicles: Tacombi at Fonda Nolita

I'm not sure exactly when my love for horchata began, but I'd surmise that it was right around the time I first heard of it.  "Horchata" wasn't really a word that was thrown around my household as a kid, and I fear that it was well into my 20s before I had a taste.  That's a lot of wasted horchata time, if you ask me.  Time to make up for it. But how, how can I ever begin to make up for all those lost tastes and the unknown enjoyment? With a horchata series of posts, of course. I'm hoping to use this series as a way to motivate me to taste every horchata that crosses my path - sweet or spicy, virgin or spiked.  Especially spiked.  Recommendations welcome and encouraged!

Next time, spiked.

Horchata, in case you’re not familiar (!), is essentially rice milk, typically, sweetened with sugar or honey and spiced with cinnamon.  It’s both earthy and sweet, and though I didn’t grow up with it, I’ve come to find it quite comforting. 

I am far from a horchata expert.  In fact, I’m not sure exactly what makes a good horchata, and I’m sure that those I’ve had are far from the best.  Before I set out on my mission to try a whole bunch of different horchatas, high end and low, from trucks and restaurants, shacks and stalls, to see how they differ, to see what I like, I’m going to start with a horchata I’ve had and enjoyed on a couple of occasions.  

Tacombi is an interesting little spot. Essentially a beach-side taco truck plunked down into a NoLita garage, Tacombi manages to pull off that lazy, surfer vibe despite its Elizabeth Street locale. There are tacos served out of that re-purposed, non-functional VW bus, and breakfast tacos and tortas served from the kitchen in the back.  There are white bridge tables and high counters; paper napkins kept in cups atop tables and hot sauce aplenty. 


The juices at Tacombi are kept in giant jugs atop this drink station. There’s watermelon juice, a tamarind drink and couple of agua frescas at any given time.  There’s also the horchata. 

I’m not sure where on the authenticity scale Tacombi's horchata rests, but it ranks pretty highly on my deliciousness scale.  It’s just sweet enough to make you really want that next sip, but not sweet enough to nauseate.  The cinnamon is prominent, but not at all chalky.   

As I was drinking it, I was amazed that such richness could be coaxed predominantly from rice, but looking at their menu now I see that Tacombi spikes theirs with sweetened condensed milk, which lends the drink a remarkable creaminess and delightful sugary burst. I’m not sure whether Tacombi's horchata is authentic, but I’m sure it's tasty. 

Highly recommended.

Tacombi at Fonda Nolita
267 Elizabeth Street
(917) 727-0179 

Monday, March 12, 2012

NYC: Brushstroke

It was not easily that I settled on Brushstroke for Robbie's birthday dinner.  We dine out a lot, so I wanted to make sure that it was a special meal - something out of the ordinary.  My first choice, since I thought Rob would love it, Torrisi's 20-course chef's tasting menu, was booked solid, and while we were on a wait list, the chances seemed slim to none that we'd be called off of it (and, in fact, they were).  I'd read a lot about Brushstroke, and it seemed like it would be an interesting culinary experience.  I've done tasting menus before, but I'd yet to experience a kaiseki, a series of artistically presented small plates that balance the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food.  I wasn't expecting to be hit over the head with flavor, as we would have been at Torrisi, but I expected to experience subtle flavor combinations that I might not have seen before.  Sam Sifton gave a glowing review over the summer, and while he's steered me wrong before, I scoured the blogoverse and most people seemed to agree that this place was something special.

So it was that we wound up at Brushstroke at 9 p.m. We had to wait for a little while, so we sat and the bar and started in on some cocktails (which would later prove to have been entirely unnecessary).  The decor of the bar is pretty awesome - at first it just looks as if the walls are covered with whatever the wall-equivalent of parquet floors would be, but upon closer inspection, the cross-hatch patterns are made by the pages of books, stacked vertically and horizontally with the spines facing in.  Pretty cool.  Anyway, I went with a cucumber and almond number that was strong yet balanced, and I enjoyed the extra crunch from the smoked almonds. Since I really like almonds (smoked and non-) and booze, so there was little chance of that drink failing for me.  Rob had a ginger thing that was, well, gingery and, uh, boozy?  Yea, I'm doing a great job here.

We sat at the counter by the open kitchen, where we were able to watch the massive team of cooks prep and slice, sear and arrange, making this the third consecutive birthday meal that Robbie and I have eaten at counters (the others being the Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare (fucking awesome) and Momofuku Ko (also absolutely ridiculous)).  Every motion, no matter how seemingly rote, was entirely deliberate and well-intentioned.  Bouley must run a tight ship.  

Brushstroke has gotten some flak about it's rigid dining room menu, where only an 8-course (regular or vegetarian) or 10-course menu are available.  Since it was a celebration, we went balls-out and opted for the 10-course Early Winter tasting menu.  We asked our waiter about the availability of beverage pairings, and he said he'd fetch the sommelier. This led to the first real misstep in the meal - the sommelier did not stop by until after the first course was served. There was likely little adverse effect of this, though, since the first course was cold, but it seemed out of order and awkward for the sommelier to speak to us for a few minutes about our options while our food sat, already served, in front of us. When we asked whether it was possible to pair every course with a wine or sake, we were presented with a couple of options.  It was possible to order a few half-bottles of wine or sake (he suggested three to complement the different stages of the meal), or, "if we drink a lot", we could have a different wine or sake paired with each meal.  Since we're a couple of lushes, we went for the full pairing. The sommelier was sometimes slow with the delivery and imperfect with timing his pours, but he was very knowledgeable, particularly about sake, for which Rob has a particular affection.  

Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, Broccoli Rabe with Yuzu Mustard Miso

Since this was a couple of weeks ago now, I don't remember much about this dish.  Except that it was cold and the flavors were bright and that, like all the dishes that followed, it was beautiful on the plate.  It didn't blow us away obviously, but I remember eating it without complaint and enjoying it.

Steamed Chawan-mushi Egg Custard, Black Truffle Sauce and Uni

Now this dish, this dish is one I am not soon to forget.  The flavors were so balanced, so restrained, and so perfect.  It was light and tasted unlike anything I'd really had before, which is what I was banking on when I decided on Brushstroke.  The black truffle sauce was understated and earthy and did not overwhelm at all the fresh salinity of the uni.  I'd eat this umpteen times over.

Today's Sashimi

A variety of sashimi was next placed in front of us, tuna, mackerel and yellowtail (I believe) each paired with a different dipping sauce, fresh grated ginger and some kick-ass wasabi.  More places should use fresh wasabi, by the way. The fish was all fresh and delicious, as you'd expect in this sort of setting.  Not life-changing, though.

Lobster Bisque with White Miso and Sake Lees

This isn't the lobster bisque of which Cape Cod memories are made.  This was thinner, with most of the body a result of miso, and as a result, it was packed with umami.  The lobster was generously portioned, expertly cooked, and delicious as lobster can be.  I'd pick this over a cream and sherry bisque any day of the week.

Sea Bass Sushi with Pickled Plum Sauce

I really enjoyed the sushi, topped with teeny droplets of pickly plum sauce, which was pungent enough to actually contribute a good amount of flavor despite its modest application. Rob found the sushi a bit too fishy tasting for his liking; ever the fan of fishy (not obviously non-rancid) fish, I savored these couple of bites.

Today's Oyster with Yuzu Dressing

Here is an oyster.  It was delicious.  

For the next three courses, the diner is asked to choose from a list of options.  Where two options were presented, we obviously each chose one for maximum tastes. 

Grilled Anago and Yam Dumpling with Ankake Sauce 

As we just said we'd have both options and share, it was up to the waiter to allocate the dishes among the two of us.  So it was that for the next course I was presented with the grilled anago and yam dumpling with ankake sauce.  This was really interesting and very delicious. I love grilled eel, so I was pumped when this was placed in front of me.  Add a Japanese hush puppy and I am good to go.  This was awesome.

Miso Marinated Black Cod with Chrysanthemum Leaf Puree

I tried a little corner of Rob's cod, and it was among the better preparations of the now-ubiquitous miso black cod I've tried.  It was meaty and substantial, and got a great blackened flavor from the grill.  

Cherrywood and Chrysanthemum Smoked Duck, Malanga Puree and Chamomile 

I was handed the duck, Robbie the pork belly.  Duck and I are having a moment right now, so our waiter read us properly and set each dish before its more eager recipient. This duck made my duck look like amateur hour (which in all fairness, I suppose it is).  It was tender, and smoky, and slightly sweet, with faint hints of spiciness and some crunch. It was, in a word, fantastic. 

Yuru-kosho Marinated Pork Belly, Sweet Onion Puree, Black Vinegar Sauce

Rob was handed the other option.  I have a limitation on the amount of non-bacon pork belly I can really eat in one go, so I was glad he was given that dish, and the boy has seemingly limitless stomach capacity for pork belly.  He really liked it, and while I can't articulate his precise reasoning for that, I can vouch for his authority on the matter.  

Now here was where there menu presented some difficulty; the "over rice" portion. Whereas the two prior courses has two options, here there were four options, but still only two of us.  Obviously two dishes would be sacrificed and thrown into my memory as Things that Are Probably Delicious but that I Will Never Know. The mixed vegetables with ankake over brown rice was an easy target, particularly since I knew I'd be getting a taste of ankake in the dumpling dish.  By the way, I'm still not precisely sure what ankake is, though a quick google search leads me to believe that it is a "starch-thickened broth with chunks of meat, vegetables or seafood" (thanks Chowhound).  The Salmon was hard to see go, though; R.I.P. Steamed Salmon with Salmon Roe and Aonori Seaweed, I hardly knew ye and your delicious little bursts of roe.

Soft Shell Crab over Rice with Chrysanthemum Petal Sauce

After consulting with our waiter, who I must say was charming and attentive, I went with the soft shell crab.  Once it arrived, any thoughts of steamed salmon dancing around my head were quelled and that first bite vindicated my choice. This was the best soft shell crab I've ever had.  It's not soft shell season here, so who knows where it was shipped in from, and something makes me think that I don't want to know what the carbon footprint of our meal was, anyway.  The crab was meaty, and crunchy, and just flawless.  Yes, there was rice, but it was rice and I ignored it to ensure I was able to finish every last bite, save for the quarter that I (generously, if I do say so myself) bestowed upon Rob.  

Stewed Wagyu Beef over Rice

The beef was flavorful and tender, the sauce not overwhelming, but I couldn't really be bothered trying to ascertain what I liked about it when I was so absorbed in my crab.  

Dessert again presented us with options - though, truth be told, we didn't know what they were.  Thankfully, our waiter was incredibly helpful in guiding us here as well and made suggestions from the choices he'd committed to memory. 

We were also presented with a box of rice crackers that were dusted with a variety of powders, some sweet, some savory, some spicy; all quite interesting. 

Soy Milk Ice Cream with Toasted Buckwheat

After divulging my tendency to shy away from the overly sweet and my general proclivity for salty desserts, the waiter told me matter-of-factly that I would be having the soy milk ice cream.  I couldn't argue with his confidence, and I love me some ice cream.  This was fucking delicious.  The ice cream was savory, just the faintest hint of spice, but the toasted buckwheat was what really did it for me.  It was nutty, salty and downright wholesome tasting.  I really loved it.    

Soy Milk Panna Cotta

For the birthday boy, a soy milk panna cotta with matcha sauce, served with a candle of course.  The panna cotta was also rather savory, and had a great consistency, and sat atop a bed of red bean puree.  It seemed to combine the understated flavors of many Japanese desserts with the sensibility and style for which the French are known.

While the meal didn't come cheap, Rob and I both quite enjoyed ourselves at Brushstroke.  It doesn't have the hushed reverence of Momofuku Ko, or the cool sleekness of Brooklyn Fare, but it is a different experience altogether.  I could have done without the cocktail at the outset, particularly given the amount of booze that we consumed throughout our meal, and likely would have had we not been asked to wait 20 minutes for our seats at the counter to be ready. The meal was quite different from any I'd really had before, and that was what I was hoping for when I made the reservation.  I definitely never thought I'd consume so much chrysanthemum in one sitting, or at all.  None of the flavors at Brushstroke will hit you over the head or send smoke out of your ears, but you'll enjoy a thoughtful, beautiful and delicious progression of tastes, all of which are pretty damn great.

30 Hudson Street (at Duane St.)
New York, NY 10013
(212) 964-3771

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Valentine's Day Dessert: Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Peppered Berry Coulis

Though pretty much ready to burst after all of that duck and cauliflower, dessert remained.  We lingered over our dinner plates for a long while and continued to enjoy our wine to allow ourselves to digest a bit in the name of stuffing ourselves further.  Thankfully, my menu planning was done under the assumption that we'd be in a state of near (or over-) satiety after the entree, so dessert was light.  

One of the benefits of preparing your own food, as opposed to eating out, is that you are in control of what goes into it. Which is all well and good when you're cooking healthfully.  Obviously the flip side is that you know precisely what has gone into your food, and sometimes a rich chocolate dessert does not seem like the very best idea after your kale caesar, or your butter and wine-sauced duck.  This is all to say that I eschewed chocolate on Valentine's day.  Better to leave a romantic meal feeling rejuvenated by a bright dessert than stuffed and comatose after caloric overload.  Besides, Robbie loves panna cotta, and there is something almost sensual about its smooth, delicate, velvety nature.

Of course, let's be clear, this isn't exactly health food either - things with heavy cream rarely are, unfortunately.  But this panna cotta is tangy, bright, delicious, and shockingly easy to make.  The buttermilk lends an almost yogurt-like quality, which was played up by the vanilla and the berries on top - like your breakfast parfait snuck under the bleachers and took up with the Skanks.  

Though I've yet to try, I imagine this recipe takes well to adaptation; as a coffee yogurt lover (of both the frozen and non-frozen varieties), I already know where I'll be taking it next.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Peppered Berry Sauce

Makes 6 servings

The original recipe from Bon Appetit makes enough for six ramekins.  Since we were only two, I halved the recipe and since I have but a single ramekin, I poured the mixture into big mugs, which worked just fine.  Since I'm no panna cotta expert, I decided not to futz around with the recipe otherwise, so it's merely copied below from Epicurious.    

  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray

  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Pour 2 tablespoons water into small bowl; sprinkle gelatin over. Let stand until gelatin softens, about 10 minutes. Lightly spray six 3/4-cup ramekins or custard cups with nonstick spray.

Heat cream, lemon peel, and sugar in medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and bring just to low boil, stirring occasionally. Add gelatin mixture; remove from heat. Stir until gelatin dissolves. Cool mixture to lukewarm, stirring often. Stir in buttermilk and vanilla; divide mixture among prepared ramekins. Refrigerate panna cotta until set, about 4 hours. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and keep chilled.

Using small sharp knife, cut around panna cotta in each ramekin. Place plate atop each ramekin and invert, allowing panna cotta to settle onto plate.

Peppered Berry Sauce
Makes 3 servings

The Bon Appetit recipe suggests a simple thawed frozen berry topping for the panna cotta.  I took it a bit further and cooked the berries on the stovetop for a little while to add some extra oomph.  I didn't quite measure what I added to that pot, but what follows is an approximation. Note that these are the amounts I used to top the halved panna cotta recipe.  While we had leftover sauce (which, as predicted, were awesome in yogurt), you may wish to double this recipe if making the full batch. Also, don't do what I did and top the cold panna cotta with hot berries - I suggest waiting just a couple of minutes for them to cool down just a tad.

1/2 package frozen mixed berries, or approximately 6 ounces, thawed 
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper (or more, depending on your tastes)

Place the berries in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, add the salt, sugar and two tablespoons of water.  Cook until the sugar is dissolved and the berries are warmed through and starting to break down a bit.  Add the lemon juice and black pepper and stir to combine.  Adjust pepper to taste.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly before spooning atop panna cotta.