Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Free Mediocrity

What is it about a day in meetings that makes me over-eat mediocre food? What is it about free meals that makes it seem important to get one's "money's worth". I spent today in a meeting center: I managed not to go nuts on the continental breakfast, but was intrigued by a brownie and ice cream dessert (so-so), cookies (barely edible) at the afternoon break and then had to have the full three courses at dinner.

What is it about free food that makes me eat stuff I wouldn't normally bother with?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Right Way (Gajyumaru)

Tonight, my friend M (in from Boston) graciously allowed me to drag him up to 86th & 1st (smack in the middle of the culinary wasteland that is the UES) for one of my very favorite sushi restaurants in the whole city, Gajyumaru.

I got my normal (ish) order: 2 pieces each of tuna and sea urchin, 1 piece of scallop, 1 avacado and eel roll, one half of a negitoro roll (fatty tuna and scallions - not pictured) and a huge amount of ginger (she brought me a whole separate dish of it).

The presentation is always great too - I think this is a new plate: that's a stone center - very cool looking.

In a recent entry in his blog, Frank Bruni asks the question about when it is appropriate to use one's fingers for food. I won't get into the philosophy of the question now (there are times when others don't, but I really do think fingers are the right answer - more on it some other day), but I did want to clarify something that had been mentioned in the comments on the proper way to eat sushi. The first thing is that it is in fact totally fine to eat sushi with fingers - not even the highest sticklers in Japan would raise an eyebrow. The next point though is that the best way to eat is to dip the fish (not the rice!) in the soy sauce (full sodium).

The easiest way to do it is grab the sushi long-wise and dip the fish and the bottom chipstick into the soy sauce. This totally solves the problem that many people seem to have of rice falling apart in the soy sauce (and allows the right part of the sushi (i.e., the fish) to be flavored with the wasabi/soy). Try it. You'll like it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Red (Carpet) Sauce

I'm still on my kick of making quick and delicious one-pot pasta sauces and eating them with quinoa. Tonight for sitting at home watching the Oscars (and working - really!), I decided on a red cream sauce. It was beautifully red, rich and spicy hot (okay, enough trying to make heavy handed and cheesy comparisons between a quality meal and a Hollywood spectacle).

I started with a base of J's Vodka Sauce and changed based on what I had in the house, etc. And the best part (aside from the taste - it really was good!) was that it was done in a little more than 30 minutes.

Red Cream Sauce
Sauce for pasta (or quinoa) for 4-6

1 ½ can (28 oz. ones) crushed tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
1 large onion
1/3 cup cream
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
¾ pack of frozen baby sweet peas
4 hot Italian sausages
1/3 cup Parmigian grated cheese

  1. Saute onions (until clear) and garlic
  2. Add sausage and sauté til cooked
  3. Add everything else except peas and cream; cook for about 15 minutes
  4. Add remaining ingredients and cook another 10 minutes
  5. Enjoy!

I do want to point out that my interest in a quick, good meal is based on 2 things: 1. A lack of time (like everyone else, I'm too busy and don't have time to do a gourmet meal every night), 2. A refusal to eat bad food. I am, though, of the opinion that this is not an extraordinarily difficult thing to do (though comments on David Leibowitz's blog show that not everyone agrees with this (which, of course is why the Food Network is what it is, which is why the Ruhlman/Bourdain 'discussion' is interesting)).

At the end of the day, this dinner was not that different (in vaguely descriptive terms) from a Hamburger Helper kind of thing (meat and stuff in a pot) - only it was homemade (and tasted much better). It's just about knowing (or being comfortable experimenting with) what combinations actually work - and that's the key. So, while I am sometimes hesitant about posting my less dramatic meals (they seem paltry by comparison with what others often post), I'll keep doing so as my input to the ideas for quick meals.

Spanish and French (Danal)

Tonight we went to see A Spanish Play at one of my favorite theaters. Of course, this meant dinner at an ungodly early hour. And yet, it was difficult to get a reservation. We ended up at Danal (10th between 3rd and 4th Avenues), which M hadn't been to in ages and which I had never been to.

I was there first and was instantly charmed by the low tin ceiling (I always love them) and just the small coziness of the place. And they sat us even though 2 of the 5 of us weren't here yet, which was very nice! We were running a little late, so we just had drinks and an entree, skipping the appetizer and the dessert (it had to happen, but neither D nor I were happy about it).

I got the Cassoulet, which was nice (have to have it while the weather still allows it - which hopefully will end soon (except for that whole global warming thing)). I wasn't crazy about the presentation, but it tasted good (though a bit heavy perhaps for a day with an early dinner and late lunch).

M got the Filet au Poivre, which she really liked. And J liked his whole Branzino (there was nothing but bones left). K and D were running late and so just got appetizers. K was okay with her salad, but seemed to like her soup. D was so-so on his Chicken Livers.

Overall it was a very cute and friendly place and the service was wonderful.

Funky Food (Funky Diner)

My friends P&A came in from SF and managed to find time for me for lunch. We had planned to meet for tea, but had neglected to get a reservation and so switched last minute. A was getting her hair cut (she moved to SF almost 10 years ago, but still has her hair cut here - I'm okay with that as it gets her out here at least somewhat regularly) and so suggested a funky diner near her hair place. I walked up Columbus past 82nd looking for a funky-looking place. It was easy when I saw the sigh for Funky Diner. It looks like it's actually linked with Kidsville right there and was indeed very kid-friendly, but not over the top (P summed it up very well - as saying that it was fun, but not kiddie).

I ordered a Tuna Melt on a Croissant with Guacamole. Really, reading that description, need I say more. I love tuna melts and this one did do it a little differently, and was yummy. But as good as the melt was, what really won for me was the Sweet Potato Fries. Now Sweet Potato Fries always sound great, but often disappoint. These most definitely did not! These were quite possibly the best Sweet Potato Fries that I have every had in my life! They were incredible. These alone are actually worth going here for (if you're at all a sweet potato fan).

A saw a 5 year old eating Cheeseburger Sliders. Luckily she's 6 months pregnant and so the waitress let her order off the kids menu. She said they were quite good.

P "wasn't hungry", so he only got a savory crepe (the Loire one) - it was primarily chicken and mushroom. He let me have a small bite - so I can attest to the fact that it was good. (I knew that I had an early dinner, so I didn't go for a sweet crepe for dessert, but it was hard not to.)

We spent more than 2 hours lingering (we sat down at 2:30, so it wasn't hugely busy) and they were very nice about not rushing us (and refilling water glasses). For people looking for a place to eat with kids, this is definitely a place to check out. And for anyone looking for a nice casual meal on the UWS, it's definitely worth a thought (they also have a whole gelato case (Ciao Bella), but we were too cold).

Friday Night Light (Shanghai Pavilion)

M and I went out for after work drinks tonight. We had had some big dinner plans, but ended up deciding we just wanted a mellow (and light) dinner after drinks (and a bit too much really good guacamole at Dos Caminos).

So we headed uptown (mainly so that we'd be a block away from V's and convince her to come out) to Shanghai Pavilion. The conversation went something like this:
M: You know what would be really good - soup dumplings at Shanghai Pavilion
Me: Okay. What are soup dumplings?
M: You don't know what soup dumplings are?

We ended up with a very light order: Soup (I had hot & sour), Soup dumplings, Pea shoots and Fried soup (more on that later).

The soup dumplings were awesome. If you've never had them before, you should. What you do for them is put them on the spoon and then bite a small hole and suck out the broth. I added hot sauce to mine (not enough that I lost the flavor of the soup though!). Then, once the broth is gone, you get to eat the dumpling. It's absolutely delicious! (And fun.)

M kept saying that she wanted the Frozen soup desert. It was absolutely freezing outside, so the name did not appeal to me. But then she said, no that it was a hot dessert - which seemed really odd to me. When we got the dessert menu, we realized that the reason for this was that it was actually called Fried Soup. It was a melt in one's mouth mochi squares covered with what seemed like sugar and ground black sesame. It was good and not overwhelming.

This was a perfect quick, light dinner on a really cold night.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Quick, Casual and Good! (Lamb & Red)

Tonight as a last minute thing, I ended up at C&L's house for dinner. This was a very nice thing because in addition to good food and wine, I get to read bed time stories. We got the kids to bed and then we sat down for lamb chops, broccoli and a wonderful Corton Clo du Roi 1999. I really liked this wine (I tasted some carmel, but overall a nice balance between a little earth and the sweetness (it wasn't sweet, just that hint that made it rich)) - L was so-so on it (disclaimer: he's a better judge of great wines, I'm a good judge of what I like (and he's a fabulous judge of what I will like)). I liked it because it was solid and good. It didn't reach for huge heights, but it didn't leave you in the lurch either. I would definitely drink it again (though, I might leave the pouring to someone else).

With all the talk recently on the Food Network, etc. on Ruhlman, Bourdain, et. al., I have been thinking a bit about food preparation. In the time it took me to get a 5 and 3 year old through their stories and snuggled (i.e., 'mostly' in bed), C managed to whip up a very tasty (and 'healthy') meal. It really doesn't have to take that long (and it doesn't need to involve non-food to make it quicker). And while a menu could be more 'glamorous' than lamb chops and garlic broccoli - it's hard to make it taste better.

And we had ice cream for dessert (calcium is very important!). (I had chocolate (Haagen Dazs), which worked remarkably well with the wine.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Name for It

I try not to be bothered by the people who look askance at what I eat (i.e., good food), but sometimes it's frustrating. They've been educated to believe fundamental things about food and health that don't align with what I eat. And as I don't have a method of re-education, I can't help them. Until today, I didn't even have a name. And then when I, finally (the article was published over 3 weeks ago), sat down to read Michael Pollan's Unhappy Meals, from January 28's New York Times Magazine, I had a part of the answer. I now can name their belief system: Nutritionism.

Followers of this movement look at me as I am intent on enjoyment of a delightful creme brulee (or something else delicious) and say things like, "Aren't you worried about your cholesterol?" To which I respond, with a smile (hoping to make the discussion end right there), "Nope, mine's fine." But these people are true believers of Nutritionism, and so they say, "Ah, you're lucky to have genetics on your side." To which (and I know I shouldn't take the bait, but I do) I say, "My dad's was stratospheric (he now takes niacin which seems to have brought it down) and my mother's is still a number higher than I can easily count. The genetics reasoning doesn't work with me." The only good thing is that at this point, they stop - feeling on shaky ground. They don't want to press too hard on how I can eat butter, eggs, red meat, etc. on a (very) regular basis and not have sky-high cholesterol levels. But by this point I've become energized with the idea that I may be able to free this poor soul from his blindness and so I refuse to let it die. And so, after a long pause, I continue, "Yes, I eat everything that conventional wisdom says is bad for you and yet I'm healthier than most folks. Makes you think seriously about conventional wisdom, doesn't it." At this point, the other person is running scared and starts talking about his latest vacation, gossip about a common friend or the weather - really anything to change the subject. And so, with a (deep) sigh, I let it go.

I had my own epiphany almost 5 years ago. The epiphany, for all the implied suddenness, had the groundwork laid before that point. (This is the somewhat embarrassing part of the story) There's a Star Trek Next Generation episode with Charles Emerson Winchester III (yes, I know he's really David Ogden Stiers, but it's hard to separate the two) as a scientist who needs to save his planet, but he's also days away from turning the age at which all people on his planet commit euthenasia (it's also a version of an old Chinese fable). I don't know why this episode struck me as hard as it did - but it did. I couldn't get away from the question: What is it like to have a belief that's wrong, but that's so fundamental that you can't even question it as a belief? How would you even know you had one. So I started trying to figure out if I had a belief that was false (think about it some time, it's really hard). Everything I tried to think of seemed so obvious that it couldn't just be a belief - it had to be truth. And then, one day, reading the NY Times (yes, a bit of a pattern there), I found it. I was reading What if It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie? by Gary Taubes, July 7, 2002 and while the article was great, it was actually the online commentary that was my own blinding flash of white light.

There were a lot of comments, but they seemed to fall clearly into 2 categores: 1. I've tried the Atkins diet (or something like it) and it worked for me - and here are all my personal proof points, 2. We all know that fat is bad/It's common sense that carbs are the best for us/etc. I suddenly realized how much the whole sun revolving around the Earth thing had been 'common sense' or 'we all know'. AndI had it, my incorrect belief - the whole idea of what I should/shouldn't be eating, what was good for me and what wasn't (not the specific detail of the Atkins diet, but the idea that the only argument against it was the 'everybody knows it's not true'). And that was the day that I stopped listening to (or believing, anyway) everything that I was hearing about nutrition.

And I just started eating. I started eating 'food' (Michael Pollan makes a point in differentiating between food and other things we eat). I consciously choose butter over margarine, ignored 'Lite' food (not that I'd ever been a huge fan of the snackwells kind of thing), ate whatever (i.e., eggs, red meat, cream, etc.) sounded good. And I didn't gain weight or see my health degenerate - nothing; and I have a lot better meals than most people.

I think I'm pretty much in total agreement with Michael Pollan in this article (don't tell, but I still haven't read Omnivore's Dilemma). I'm not sure why eating Food is better (i.e., I can't tell you from a biological or chemical perspective), all I know is that it seems to work. (And worst case, if I'm wrong, at least I'm enjoying it).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Different Kind of Run (Bordeaux)

Normally when I go for a run, I follow a predictable path to and from the Park. But today, I had an errand to run and so I found myself about a block from home, near the end of a great run (sunny, but cold, day), right in front of my local wine shop. And they were having a tasting. And so, throwing conventional ideas of good health to the wind, I went in to taste. They were showing two Bordeaux wines. The first was organic, etc., which appealed to me on the whole no pesticide, etc. front, but I didn't love the wine. I said it was too sweet; I was corrected when she pointed out that it was just the strong fruit on the nose, there wasn't actually sugar in the wine - so let me re-phrase: It tasted too sweet (and oddly, like apples, apple-cider even - which is not one of the fruits I normally associate with reds), which didn't work for me.

The second was a St. Emilion - very earthy. And I liked it. And I bought two bottles (I only had my wallet with me because of my errand - I don't usually jog with quantities of cash). (And then, as long as I was there, I bought a couple of splits of Champagne. Because champagne is such a great cocktail hour drink, but I usually only open a bottle if enough other folks want it. With the split, my chance of finiding 'enough' people, rises dramatically.)

Now, while I don't think that this pairing (running and wine tasting) is necessarily best for everyday; it's a nice treat occasionally. One I highly recommend. I will also conclude by saying that Bordeaux seems to pair well with running (especially on cold, sunny days). I'm not sure that in the summer a Rose or Sauvignon Blanc wouldn't be better, but I will let you know (if summer ever arrives).

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The End (Honmura An)

My friends J & D are definitely trustworthy when it comes to food. And so, months ago when the suggested that I try Honmura An, I should have headed down there for my very next meal. But, it never quite happened. And then, it was announced that Honmura An would be closing on February 17. D & J got reservations for twice in the final week and I got to go with them for the last night (I was a stand in for D's parents who have been going, regularly, for 15 years, but weren't able to make it in for this weekend).

We went with the set menu and from the very first bite, I realized that I would spend the rest of the evening in a conflicted state. I was totally excited that I was getting to have this experience. And totally depressed that it would be my last opportunity (unless I head off to Tokyo, where there will be one in Roppongi - and I do believe that flight would be worth it).

The first course had three very different dishes: Deep fried rock shrimp, a mountain yam dish with uni, ikura (roe) and okra, and seaweed with sesame.

The deep fried shrimp was good - the tempura coating the best part of it. The yam with uni, etc. was awesome - and I usually don't like mountain yam (it's a texture thing). But in my mind, the best of the three was the seaweed. It's such an easy dish, and yet, so few places do it well. Their version was pure perfection - it was the right balance of sesame and seaweed. It was magic in my mouth.

The next course was sashimi. It included some wonderful tuna and some truly fabulous uni. Now, I love uni. And this was good uni. Really good uni. Really, really good uni. D suggested wrapping the uni in the leaves (those leaves that you always get with sushi/sashimi), which I had never tried - and it was a great suggestion. The sharp taste of the leaf worked with the earthiness of the uni.

While we had ordered the set menu, D&J had a few things that they wanted (given that this was their last chance!) and so we got a few 'bonus' plates. The first two to arrive were the O-shinko (pickles) and Tamago (egg). My favorite pickles are those made with daikon (white radish) and these were so good. They were more tender than most pickles - still crunchy, but not as hard. I could have eaten a whole daikon worth (and they're big radishes). The tamago dish is one that often gets short shrift as just a random sushi set offering. But well done tamago is much more than just a filler. It's a light layering of scrambled egg, with plenty of flavor. To get the best view of this, it helps to eat the tamago with shredded daikon and soy sauce.

Our next 'optional' dish was deep fried chicken meatballs. This is another of D & J's favorites and is a great take on the more (to my view) traditional tskune, where the meatballs are just barbequed (it would be hard to convince me that there are things that don't taste better deep fried (if you try to argue things like Twinkies, my argument would start with the fact that they don't taste very good plain, so, while I've never tried them deep fried, they've got to taste better that way)). And hot mustard does make most things just that little better anyway.

At this point, we got back to the menu. It was a grilled sea bass. Now, normally, I don't really order flakey white fish - it's usually just pretty bland. This version was not. Decidedly not. D guessed that it had been flavored with mirin and I think he's right. It had that slightly sweet overtone that really worked with the flavor of the fish. And, it was in fact, grilled to perfection. The fish was so moist it made me question whether I've ever actually had well cooked flakey white fish in my whole life (seriously). It was at this point (as I was wishing for a second piece) that I started to realize that I might have trouble finishing this meal (quantity-wise).

The next course was Chawamushi. Now, the first word that struck me as this was placed in front of me was - natsukashi. (This is a Japanese word which is translated roughly as 'nostalgia', but I believe that I can better explain it by showing an example of usage (Let's say that you're having a Fudgesicle. You take one lick and say 'Ah, natsukashi!', as you are transported back decades, thinking: Man, this reminds me of when I was 12 and used to get a Fudgesicle every day up at the pool on those sunny, 80 degree days as I had nothing else to do, but just hang out with my friends, swim in the pool and enjoy myself. Boy do I love Fudgesicles. - that's what natsukashi really means) - Japanese has a lot of great exclamatory words like this.) When I lived in Tokyo, the sushi restaurant that we used to go to almost once a week had this as part of the Sushi Lunch Set. Of course, this one had Alaskan King Crab mixed in, making it a little richer than the one in my memory. But it's really tough to separate my enjoyment of the dish from the enjoyment of the memory.

I had heard that Honmura An was famous for their tempura. And it turned out that this fame was totally justified. It's pretty easy to deep-fry things, but it's also pretty easy to do it badly - which I believe is in large part why people think such negative things about deep frying (when, see the chicken meatball description for more detail, it seems to me to be unjustified). The batter was so light and crispy - it was perfection. We got one large prawn, as well as a whole bunch of vegetables: kabo-chan, another squash, mushroom and asparagus. I saved the squash for last, it was so sweet and crunchy, it was the perfect end to a great course. And, unlike many Japanese restaurants in the states, they had great dipping sauce. (Most restaurants in the US don't bother with the shredded daikon in the sauce - seriously undermining my enjoyment, but the ones you really need to stay away from are those that let you 'dip' tempura in soy sauce.)

And then we got to the course that I was most looking forward to: Seiro Soba. This is a dish of cold buckwheat noodles dipped in a cold broth mixed with wasabi, green onions and grated daikon. It's one of my favorite dishes. But I almost never get to eat it because I can't stand non-handmade soba. I used to live right near a soba shop that made handmade noodles every day. Going there multiple times a week, I quickly learned that the difference between handmade and non-handmade soba is the difference between night and day. Handmade soba is a delicious treat. Machine-made soba tastes square (I know that's not technically a taste, but really, the square-ness of the noodles overwhelms any flavor. It just doesn't work). And so, I almost never order soba, because it's just not worth the disappointment (this is even true in Tokyo, where most places don't make their own soba). But this was handmade soba. This was good soba. This was soba that made me want to keep eating until I couldn't move. It was perfectly balanced flavors. And, if that weren't enough, they served it with a little square pot of hot water - this is something that most soba places (again, even in Tokyo) don't even bother doing. After you've finished the noodles, you pour the water into the dipping sauce and then it's like the broth of a normal hot soup (and one that is flavored with wasabi and has a little of the onion and daikon still swimming in it). It's a great way to end a soba meal.

At this point, I seriously considered that if I ever had to choose my last meal on Earth, that it might be this one. And then D mentioned the Uni Soba. And we threw caution to the win. We were already full, but knowing that you may never again have the chance to eat something is a huge incentive to push it just a little further. And so we decided to share an order of Uni Soba (that was passing for restraint at this point). Again, this was a cold soba (though served in the broth, not as a dipping broth). And while this dish doesn't allow the same communing with the purity of the noodles; it does help raise the noodles to a new level. The earthiness of the uni just fills out the flavor of the buckwheat noodles. The flavor combination really works. I enjoyed every bite - ignoring the whisper that I had to as it was my last chance; I just concentrated on each bite. And while my mouth could have kept eating noodles (maybe alternating between the plain and the uni) until they physically forced us out of the restaurant, I was now so full that it wasn't really possible (and the whole scene of being strong-armed out would have been somewhat embarrassing given the crowd that was there).

And so, we moved on to dessert. I wasn't too worried about fitting dessert in - it's not generally my favorite part of a Japanese meal. And yet, here again, I found some of the best Japanese dessert dishes I have tried. We each ordered one of the mochi and then we got the cheesecake and the green tea cake to share. Now, I'm fussy about my mochi (yeah, I know, I'm fussy about most things) - I don't really like street mochi from a cart, but do love the little mochi raviolis filled with bean that people used to bring back as souvenirs from Kyoto. This was much closer to the latter. And with an apricot filling - that was just sweet/flavorful enough to be delicious, without overwhelming the flavor of the mochi.

I had pretty much written off the other two as I now felt like the Blueberry girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I don't love cheesecake and firmly believe that green tea belongs in a tea cup, not in food. But I knew my duty and took a bite of each. I actually liked the cheesecake (strongly cheese flavor, and how can that be bad). But, even more surprisingly, I loved the green tea cake (and that's cake, which we know I don't love, plus green tea - not in a tea cup). And yet, it was really, really good. It had that nice mustiness of good green tea, with a very gentle sweetness - and it was moist.

As good as this meal was (and it did come pretty close to perfection), it was bittersweet. To find it on the last night it's open is almost cruel. I wouldn't have missed tonight for anything and yet... But it's just one more reason to take a trip back to Tokyo.

And since I don't have any trips planned in the near future, I'm going to do what I should have done months ago (i.e., when Honmura An was still open). I am going to focus on exploring the Japanese options in NY. If I missed this, what else am I missing. I need to start pushing to find the places like this that capture the tastes and atmosphere that I really miss. So, note to my friends - I'm game for any Japanese food you want to try.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Who's Choosing The Place (The Place)

I got together with my friends P & S last night at The Place (West 4th at 12th Street). We like dinner with plenty of conversation, so we were looking for a place that wouldn't kick us out if we wanted to linger (high probability of that), but had good food (I'm all for plenty of atmosphere for good conversation, but I'm not willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and eat bad food to get it).

S asked who was choosing 'the place'. P suggested that we just choose 'The Place'. I'm all for that kind of logic. And it turns out to be a perfect place to have a winter meal. It is a very warm, cozy feeling restaurant (though, unfortunately, too dark to make picture taking comfortable - so I'll try to paint verbally). We settled in, started talking and then by the third or fourth time our waiter asked, we were ready to order. Before we did so, S asked about our philosophy on food sharing - no better way to make me happy than by knowing that I'm eating with people who are okay with sharing, so the night was off to a great start. (Though it doesn't necessarily take away all of the stress - you know that you get to try someone else's dish, but what if it's so much better than yours that you regret your choice - that's pressure, but I try to shake that off).

S decided first - he went with the Wild Mushroom Risotto and The Lamb. Both of those were dishes that I had been looking at. I chose next (deciding that since I would get to try both of those, I didn't need to order them) and chose the Sweet Potato Ravioli and the special - Sirloin with Potato au Gratin. P went with the Duck Parpadelle and then the Cajun Fish Stew.

We also ordered the David Bruce 2004 Petit Sirah. I find David Bruce to be a really nice mid-range wine and have had good success with their Pinot Noir as well as the Petit Sirah. It tasted as good as I had hoped (and went well with the food that we had ordered).

My favorite of the appetizers - by far - was mine (isn't that a great thing to be able to say!). It was amazing. I usually find that I love the idea of squash-type pastas more than I love the actual incarnation. But this was truly better than I could have imagined - there was squash and cheese and while it was sweet, it wasn't too sweet. The presentation also was nice - the plump little raviolis nestled in the bottom of a simple off-white bowl. It wasn't a fancy, over the top plating, but it sure made me want to eat them. I could have eaten thousands of these (probably not really, but it sure felt like it).

The Parpadelle was also really nice. It had that nice rich duck flavor which worked really well with the tomato sauce. It was definitely a hearty winter kind of dish (not a bad thing on a night where we had to do a little snow tramping to get there (not a lot as the streets had basically been cleared, but there was some (and in the darkness, we could even pretend that it wasn't grey))). I would definitely order it again (unless the Ravioli was still on the menu and then I would probably be forced to order that instead - though parpadelle is really a fun noodle, both to say and to eat).

The risotto was nice. It wasn't the best I've ever had. But it was nice. In retrospect, maybe it needed salt (I think that I am realizing that risotto is generally undersalted for one with my predilections).

And then we got our entrees. I had gone for something pretty simple with the Sirloin - and was rewarded with a very nicely done steak. It's not that hard to do a steak well, and yet a number of places do. The Place does it well. It was pretty perfectly cooked. The au gratin potato however, was not the best (too much potato not enough gratin).

I had thought seriously about ordering the lamb and was glad I hadn't. It was okay, but I didn't love the vegetables with it - the flavors didn't quite work for me.

The fish stew on the other hand was really nice. It had a strong flavor that really worked for me. P's favorite was the shrimp, but I actually liked the mussels a little better.

Because S & P are great conversationalists, we had plenty of time for dessert - even after eating slowly. We decided to go with the Creme Brulee. Now, a couple of years ago I spent 6 weeks in Paris and became the world's leading expert on 2004 Parisian Creme Brulee (I have no way of proving that, but it seems unlikely that even in a year, anyone ate more creme brulee than I did in those 6 weeks - really). What this means is that I am more than a bit fussy about my Creme Brulee. This was only okay (but again, I've got high standards).

Overall, I would definitely go back. I really liked the atmosphere. We were well treated even though we dawdled (really, really slowly). And, overall, I was quite happy with the food.

A Family Dinner (Mothers and Sons)

Tonight we had dinner at E's house for our 'Literary Salon'. We read Mothers and Sons (Colm Toibin) and ate well. Every time we get together with this group, I get more excited - not only does everyone like reading interesting books (and do a good job of discussing) - it's a bunch of fabulous hosts/hostesses (no pressure J!).

E offered a tremendous meal - and we only found out later that he had just gotten back from a weekend trip, so he's not only a good cook, he's a resourceful one. This was no single pan meal (like I did for my first dinner for the group) , rather the menu included:

Asparagus with Parmesan - Do I really need to say anything here? It's asparagus! I love asparagus. It always tastes good. And it really worked with the parmesan. But then asparagus works with a lot of stuff. Yum.

Grilled Salmon with Tomato - E really wins on presentation with the meal - the colors here are just pretty exciting. The tomatoes really were wonderful; I've never really had tomatoes with salmon and I really like the combination. The tomatoes had the flavor to stand up to the salmon. It works!

Whole Wheat Pasta with Pesto and Pinenuts - This was amazing! This was my favorite part of the meal. I've always been a bit so-so on the whole Whole Wheat Pasta thing, but this just worked. It was rich, nutty and I had seconds (I probably would have gone for thirds, but there was dessert to think of).

Green Salad with Red Peppers - This just looks yummy - nice job on the intense colors. And I do always feel better when I have some fresh greens.

The plate looked great. This was my first helping of everything. I didn't take later shots to update quantities. (The plates are pretty cool too - I really like that color of blue).

Hazelnut Cake - This was so good! I am generally not a huge cake fan. I find it to be too light or floury or something. This one was really rich and nutty - almost hearty. It was most certainly not a 'lite' cake as you could really taste the fat (yum!). I don't remember the last time I had a second helping of cake (I mean other than this cake - obviously, I still remember this time).

Really, it was so good - look at the inside. And the icing - a really nice buttercream!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Ultimate Wine Dinner (Til Next Time)

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (and L) have both noted that "The truffle is not exactly an aphrodisiac, but it tends to make women more tender and men more likeable" and so when when T (our gracious host) showed me the truffles that C (who can be counted on for all important matters) had managed to procure, I knew that we were in for a truly memorable (as well, apparently, as tender and friendly) night.

We ‘paired’ this truffle viewing (and sniffing) with our pre-dinner cocktails. Having invested considerable effort this summer in investigating vintage gin cocktails, it was decided that this was a perfect opportunity to put this knowledge to use. L roped in a couple of others to whip up the best Gin Gin Mules that I have had (though they might not have been totally necessary given the bounty that was to come). I drank my Gin Gin Mule, nibbled on cucumbers (K often uses these as an appetizer, just with a little lime and salt and they're quite addictive), nuts and olives. It was also a nice time to meet the guests I didn’t know (but who all, luckily, turned out to be nice/interesting people (I even managed to wow G (who works with T) with my brother's Tea with Harold McGee. It's so fun to find new people who love food).

After cocktails we sat down at the table where the first course was served: Soft-boiled Eggs with Asparagus, Prosciutto and Caviar.

L (our sommelier as well as bar-tender) had chosen champagne to go with the egg. I probably should have asked why he chose this particular champagne: Dom Perignon 1990

But after one sip, I figured why bother - all I needed to know was that it was a brilliant pairing. We ate the eggs by dipping the asparagus into the egg and then into the caviar (a new way of salting food if one tires of soy sauce, fish sauce or even real salt – and happens to have a bit of caviar lying around). The other option was the salt from the ham that some of the asparagus spears were wrapped with. I had never had this dish (or even a similar dish before (obviously, I’ve had the parts individually)), but quite liked the idea. I think I liked it best when I had the yolk with both the ham and the caviar – but then I do like a bit more salt than the normal person. The champagne was a very dry champagne with a very pleasant taste that I can only (very badly) describe as nutty (walnut, not hazelnut – that’s probably not really it, but I can’t figure out a better description). But, just to emphasize that it was delicious, I will admit that I had a second glass, because I love champagne, and it was so very good.

For our next course, we went for the purity of white accompanied by the perfect red: a risotto with shaved white truffles. I will say that it truly is one of nature’s perfect dishes and this version did not disappoint (I’ve had this dish once before, at French Laundry - it was pretty good there too).

L had paired it (after what was apparently considerable conversation involving some prominent writers of food magazines, wine experts, etc. (this attention to detail is one of the reasons that I trust him implicitly with my tastebuds - an honor that I do not bestow lightly)) with a Barolo: Vigna del Dardi 1996 Barolo, from Monforte D'alba.

Of course, the obvious choice would have been a Bordeaux, but L tends to shy away from the obvious ("Consistency is the last resort of the unimaginative." Oscar Wilde) and so he went for something a little different. I thought it worked very well with the risotto, a nice balance between the salt (maybe only mine - I, of course, required a little bit of extra salt on mine, but that dash took this dish from merely great to absolutely sublime) and earth (the truffle) with the wine; I think he wasn’t 100% sold on it, but I figure that just means that he’ll try something new next time and I’m quite looking forward to that.

As we moved on the main course, I was quite excited. I had heard a decent amount of pre-talk about both the wine (C and L had graciously tried a bottle a few days before to ensure that they weren’t forcing us to suffer something horrible (I thought this was very generous of them to undergo such a trial for us)) and the steak (from Lobel's). K and T were clearly thinking of my ultimate happiness when they decided on Blue Cheese Crusted Filet Mignon with Red Wine Sauce, Roasted Potatoes and Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Shallots, Pancetta and Balsamic Glaze. L had been very concerned about letting the wine open without having it go too far and he managed the timing of it quite well. The perfectly decanted Leoville Lescases 1983 was indeed blissful.

And it also did what absolutely nothing else could have done, it did justice to the steak. When I was initially served I looked down at my plate and was concerned – there was no way that this could taste as good as it looked.

And yet, I believe this was the best steak I have ever eaten. This was truly a perfect course(because we can't ignore the rest of the plate - the baby Brussels sprouts (I did not realize there were so many acceptable spellings for this delicacy) - were like candy. I could eat these every day - and imagine the impact of that on my health and happiness). I think it even tops that bite of I’s steak at Michael Mina’s place in Vegas. It was just perfect. It was so perfect, I had to take another picture to show the inside, to let everyone see good it was – otherwise, I knew that people wouldn’t believe me (please excuse the messy plate, that was me trying to get every last drop of flavor, not the way it was presented).

Truly an amazing course and evidence that if what Woody Allen (in Annie Hall) says is true ("Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat, college."), that you'll be happier if you just ignore reality and listen to your parents.

And (almost) finally, what meal is complete without the dessert. T and K again were clearly thinking primarily of me - they went with pure chocolate pleasure, in the form of Chocohotpots with Crème Fraiche and Raspberries. Each bite was so amazing that I even tried to take pictures of a spoonful (a new low in my photographic career - and a depressing moment when I realized that I would not be able to re-experience each bite through the photos).

And for the first time ever, I had the luxury of squeezing my own topping tableside (K was ensuring that both the dessert would be perfectly served and I would be further entertained).

L had paired this with a dessert wine that I had been quite looking forward to: Chateau d'Yquem 1989 Sauternes, and which did not disappoint. I took a million pictures of the bottle and the glass, trying to capture how good it was.

From the outside, it just looks like any other deep yellow wine, but the taste is magic. It was an amazing luxury to enjoy that wine, to taste the fruit and sugar and not be overwhelmed, and to have it stand up to the sweetness of the dessert. It was a marvelous pairing (see how good they look together).

But, wait, there’s more. While it didn’t seem like we needed any more to eat or drink, there was still more. And having never tried Madeira, I was excited to have my opportunity to be one of those enjoying its resurgence. For our after dinner drink (paired with cheese and nuts), L had selected Marlvazia 1907 Madiera, which was, I can only assume, one of the better introductions that I could have had to the drink (I know that I certainly enjoyed this as a way to end the meal).

And, of course, the presentation and the ceremony were all as they should be (though my photography skill (such as it is) didn't necessarily capture it.

MFK Fisher pointed out that, "... gastronomical perfection can be reached in these combinations: one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hill side; two people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good restaurant; six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home." I now have evidence that 10 people in a good home may also attain it. Thanks to everyone who made this such a fabulous night!

(And my apologies for the delay in posting!)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Improving on Perfection (S.O.B. & 2000 Flavors)

For our last night we really wanted to repeat the walking to dinner idea. But unfortunately, we couldn't find any other restaurants in walking distance that looked at all interesting. And so we decided to repeat. Having had an ice cream sandwich as a snack after a pretty decent (for me)round of golf (see my previous comments on how good ice cream is in warm weather) I didn't want anything big, so we ended up choosing S.O.B's over The Beached Whale because we liked the 'tapas' option there.

We went straight for the S.O.B. beer, as we had enjoyed that, as well as three of the appetizers from last night: Smoked Fish Dip, Fried Oysters and Jalepeno Poppers. I didn't believe that it would be as good - but in fact the Oysters and the Poppers were even better (I think they were fried a little bit longer and so they were crispier). Whatever it was, they actually exceeded my expectations - which was amazing! We also ordered the stuffed mushrooms (figured that we'd try something new). We really liked them - they weren't my favorites, but I did like them (they were stuffed with crab and covered with cheese - so how bad could they have been).

I was stuffed! But, then we went back to 2000 Flavors ( it's great ice cream and there's always room for great ice cream (there's even usually room for good ice cream)). The mint chocolate chip (my dad tried a new flavor, but I'm boring like that) also exceeded my memory of it. It was so good! I would be very happy to have 2000 Flavors in NY because I would love to go back. It was that good.

You Just Need One (2000 Flavors)

We had walked from the hotel to S.O.B's for dinner and decided to stop for ice cream for dessert. (One of my very favorite treats in the world is ice cream on a cone, eaten outside in the heat. It's an awesome combination and one I indulge whenever I can (harder to do in the last few months in NY)).

The store we found is called 2000 Flavors. We're assuming that that is on a rotating basis, as they only seemed to have about 30-40 flavors. But they had mine (so more would have added nothing for me). My favorite ice cream cone is Mint Chocolate Chip on a sugar cone. It's my idea of the perfect ice cream experience.

I ordered a single scoop (more on American portions another time) and prepared to enjoy.

It was beyond what I hoped. This was one of the best ice cream cones I had had in a long time! This was awesome ice cream. It was perfectly flavored - well balanced between the mint and the chips (too many places try for big chocolate chunks, which just doesn't work). But even beyond the flavor was the ice cream itself. It was rich and creamy. It was so good! Every bite tasted good! It's been a long time since I've had such a perfect cone. I was suddenly okay with the American 'single' scoop having 2 scoops. I didn't want the cone to end.

This is ice cream worth going out of your way for!!!

Fried Heaven (Smokin' Oyster Brewery)

Without anything else to go on, we decided to ask Colleen (from The Beached Whale) where to eat (if she wasn't going to eat at the Beached Whale (of course)). She recommended two places: Smokin' Oyster Brewery and something else that neither of us could remember.

So on Saturday night, we headed off to S.O.B.'s without really knowing what to expect. My dad was in the mood for spicy and when I saw that they did have Fried Oysters, we both decided that a collection of appetizers would be the best.

It wasn't that hard to choose - my dad just looked down the menu for 'spicy', 'jalepeno', etc. We ended up with 5 dishes. I told the waitress to bring them in the order they were ready (I had gone for a run after golf and was pretty hungry). While waiting for our food, we started on our beer - I had a Corona first, but soon switched over to the house beer (which had more taste than the Corona)

The first appetizer to arrive was the Smoked Fish Dip. This had been the one that I would have skipped, based on the description, if my dad hadn't wanted it. And when it arrived I was somewhat bummed. It looked like two scoops of tuna fish.

And then I took a bite (saltines, jalepeno and the fish (which the waitress said was fresh tuna))

It was amazing. It was smokey and spicy. It was addictive. In very short order (i.e., before any of the other appetizers had appeared), we demolished it. It wasn't fancy, but man was it good.

The next four appetizers came out at the same time: Jalepeno Poppers (these are one of my secret weaknesses - I love them), Fried Oysters (previously highlighted as a favorite), blackened scallops and shrimp in a spicy sauce.

The Fried Oysters were heavenly. I love fried oysters and don't get them nearly as much as I would hope. I recently had them at Mary's Fish Camp and was very happy. These were better. These had some cornmeal in the batter that added that roughness, that crunch, that is so good. (Believe it or not) my dad had never had fried oysters. And he's now a fan.

The Poppers were great. For the uninitiated, there are two types of Poppers - those with cheese and those with cream cheese. The cream cheese version are more rare (at least in the places I frequent) and so they're a bit more special. These were the special ones. Yum.

The scallops and the shrimp were both okay, though nothing to write home about. The scallops had a buttery sauce, but were a tad over-cooked. The shrimp was good, but, as I've noted before, I'm not a huge shrimp person, and I wasn't over the moon with them. Luckily, we had over-ordered and so we left the stuff we weren't as crazy about and throughly enjoyed the others.

Overall, a fantastic meal. And just what I was in the mood for.