Annisa

 

When I received word last summer that my Uncle Wayne was not continuing with cancer treatment and would likely move to a hospice soon, I was not shocked. Wayne had been fighting illness the past few years, and the man I knew wouldn’t continue on with something that ultimately would not cure him. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in at least eight years. Family dynamics, distance, and changing modes of communication (if I’m digital, he’d be analog) all factored into this; fear and insecurity compounded the first. I hate the phone, but death gave me the courage to pick it up. So, too, did the memories of my favourite uncle.

Wayne and his family were my only immediate relatives who didn’t live in Edmonton.  Ottawa was so far away when I was little, and I imagined it as a place much more interesting than what I had experienced in Edmonton, especially as my uncle worked for the federal government in the capital of the country. When I finally visited at age eight, the novelty of a faraway family home confirmed my suspicions more than fact did. What wasn’t fantasy was how easily I was made to feel like daughter as much as niece in that home. Being the only niece and only granddaughter often affords unfair privilege, but this blurring of place was because of my aunt and uncle’s inability to draw strict boundaries—and I am forever grateful for that. When I would visit them in Ottawa subsequently, even as an adult in university, I relished the role and structure I had in their house, things I never felt in my own. I can’t describe the sense of purpose I got from being expected to set the table. Yes, yes, that grass, it’s always greener. But obviously not enough that I could go eight years without seeing it.

All I had left was a phone call, to close that long gap, to say hello, and to say goodbye. I was afraid my drama with other family members would creep in and poison the conversation, but I underestimated Wayne. He led the call like the gentleman and father figure I loved. There was no talk of pain or sadness. There was no interrogation or hint of disappointment. He wanted to know how things were going with me and to make sure I was good in life. The truth didn’t really matter. They were glossy, almost small-talk questions to underline the purpose of the call: to have a happy connection on the eve of death. And we did.

Beloved restaurants close here all the time, often without warning, leaving regular customers and neighbourhood residents saddened by the abrupt shutter.  “The rent is too damn high” darkens everyone’s life here, even those who seem to not have such worries. Although I’d never been, the announcement that celebrated West Village restaurant Annisa would close with advance warning felt a little like a terminal cancer diagnosis. If you are going to make that phone call, you better plan on making it pretty quickly.  Chef-owner Anita Lo was someone who I enjoyed watching on Top Chef Masters, and the restaurant was always on My List, but it just never was a priority destination—like so many others.  A death knell proves motivating, however, and I eventually made a reservation knowing that as its closing date (May 27/17) drew near, I’d likely get a non-stop busy signal, literally and figuratively.

As with my call to Wayne, there was fear of disappointment and a sense of futility about the whole dinner. It was not going to be cheap, so would it be worth it? For the time with my friend and companion that night, of course. We could easily have quality time at a less expensive restaurant, and one that we both wholeheartedly liked. But the allures of an ending and having an experience at a place much loved were too great. And thankfully, the apprehension lost its legs once we passed through the doors. Catching up with someone you haven’t seen in months usually means a good time regardless of setting, but its occurrence at Annisa meant for an excellent one. We swooned over our food, were well taken care of by our server, and repeatedly said how we must try to get back before the lights go out.

But, I will not. I had my night to learn why Annisa is a good restaurant and will be missed. I appreciated the chance to say goodbye. I made the phone call and put the receiver down, half heartened, half heartbroken.

Pakora-fried oysters with cucumber, yogurt, and fennel

Broiled Spanish mackerel with garlic fried milk, satsumaimo, and Korean chili

Poppyseed bread and butter pudding with Meyer lemon curd

Amass at Contra

I never grew up eating in courses. Not that I think many people did. The only early dining experiences I can think of that involved them would be at weddings and Olive Garden. When bruschetta started becoming a thing in the 90s, I remember that being ordered when out for (non-OG) Italian, but it was a slow embrace of a longer meal in my circle. I am now someone who loves eating in courses, but I can see how my preference started from eating one thing at a time, in a specific order, not from minestrone soup or frozen breadsticks.

In choosing to go to an academic high school, I chose to face a mountain of homework each night. Most of my friends went to the neighbourhood school, so socializing was less of a distraction. I quit recreational sports. I committed to the notion that good marks meant a fruitful university path which meant an opportunity to leave Edmonton. Dinner was my study break, and my family situation and picky eating ways meant that dinner was almost always of my own making and eaten in front of the little television in my room—nascent solo dining days. A toasted supermarket bagel with jam, a yogurt cup, a banana. Consumed in that order. No bite of bagel then spoonful of yogurt. No hunk of banana taken while bagel remained. With commercial breaks used to fetch each course, my meal could almost cover a sitcom. I followed suit at school, eating my lunch one element at a time to avoid cramming for a test or getting a head start on homework.

Now, lengthening a meal through courses and eating one element at a time is an act of prolonging my joy rather than procrastinating. I want a meal to linger because of derived pleasure. My regular sack lunch is about six courses, and most dinners at home are four. When ordering at restaurants, a common question is, “Can the dishes be coursed out?” When the answer is yes and I receive a dish before the current one is finished? I’m the difficult one who will send it back because of its premature arrival. #sallyalbrightforever

Not surprisingly, I am especially fond of tasting menus. The longer the better. When a restaurant gives the heads up on a reservation that a meal will take more than two hours, I get a twinge of excitement. (And not just because it’s likely there will be a bread service.) I am absolutely one of those people who views her time at a restaurant as the night’s entertainment; it is not merely what comes before or after. While there are other reasons I like tasting menus (no sharing, curtails indecisiveness), the opportunity to settle in and fully experience the talent and creativity of a kitchen is the main one. The price of tasting menus, however, makes them prohibitive for a typical night out. Weekday asceticism helps out a great deal with atypical nights, but full-on tasting menus are still largely for special occasions.

Except with Contra. The Orchard-Street restaurant has become my favourite in the city, and their regularly changing tasting menu never fails to impress. The price for the six courses (ha, like my lunches) is reasonable and can easily be less than a lot of other places a la carte. That gives me the opportunity to indulge my preference more often than just birthdays. Warm service and a comfortable room add to my fondness.

Thus, I had a less stringent attitude when it came to booking a table at Contra for a much pricier menu—a one-night collaboration with the chef from Copenhagen’s celebrated Amass. With a trip to Denmark still unlikely anytime soon, I didn’t want to say no to the unique event, to the special meal (a few highlights below) that didn’t require a plane ticket. With a wink, my devil argued to my angel that it would be a Christmas present to myself.

She bought it. Literally.

 

Carrot, ricotta, preserved elderflower

Potato and uni

Duck, smoked quince, charred kale, black pepper

 

Sage cake, dried green strawberry

Pizza from Arcade Bakery

My choice for desert island sustenance after bread and butter would probably be ice cream. But my New York self (the one where I incorrectly go by Ree-ahhhh-na instead of Ree-anna) would advocate strongly for pizza. Not a shocking factoid given its origins in yeast and flour. It’s baked in a hot oven. It gets topped with something fatty and/or sweet-acidic. You eat it with your hands. Pizza is just my beloved all tarted up.

I would hire a lawyer to petition for pizza to be included in my bread and butter (perhaps for the court’s purposes, bread and fat) desert island food choice if I was to be banished. The border between them is loose enough that I think I’d have a strong case. I could call witnesses. There are notable places here where there’s a successful mash-up between pizzaiolo and baker. Dan Richer at Razza makes fantastic pizza and bread. There’s Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery who branched out with pizza at Co. And now that I’ve tried the delicious pizzas of Roger Gural at Arcade Bakery, I’m confident a judge would listen to me.

Like when I indulged in the laminated baguette, the weekday-only, daytime hours of the bakery mean I can only have an Arcade pizza on a day off. That rarity definitely increases its allure. As does its location. The lobby of an office tower sounds as comfortable as a bus station, but the effort that Arcade has put in to create wooden wall nooks for seating has paid off. They’re comfortable, and despite not completely forgetting you’re in a corridor, they create enough of a sense of place to make you feel like you’re eating at Arcade, not the lobby of 220 Church St.

It is hard to ignore Arcade’s sandwiches, bread, and pastries, but when I want pizza, I want pizza. The cornicione presents puffier than most Neapolitan pies I eat, but it doesn’t eat as fluffy. The chew and pliability are there, and some char that’s not textbook leoparding. There’s the traditional margherita-like pie (fat + sweet-acid) that can be embellished with extras, and there’s also a daily special, usually a white variation. It might be an affront to other pizza lovers that I prefer white pies, but I think I do. Tomato sauces easily overwhelm me if they’re not balanced with both their own sweetness and the other toppings; a white base doesn’t take the spotlight away from what else might be on the pie.

Does this come from me preferring my bread with butter only and rarely with jam? My lawyer might advise that I should take the plea deal if offered to include white pies only…

 

Special with butternut squash, ricotta, pumpkin seed pesto, parsley, and pickled onions

Tomato, mozzarella, basil, with addition of pepperoni, onion, garlic

 

Momofuku Noodle Bar

Whether you agree with him or not, there’s no denying that The New York Times restaurant critic Pete “The Punisher” Wells has become a bit of lightening rod for the role and impact of restaurant criticism. Leaving the recent controversy of his review of Locol in Oakland aside, I always look forward to reading his reviews and trying to understand a restaurant from his viewpoint. Thus, I devoured the profile of him that The New Yorker published a few months ago. Learning about his work and process was all well and good, but I think my favourite aspect of the profile was the participation of chef David Chang. I thought it was fantastic that he would go on record with his emotions (anger/disappointment/frustration) about the impact of Wells’ review of the young Momofuku Nishi in Chelsea. Regardless of his motivation for doing so, I think his willingness to take part was admirable, especially given the forum. It is easy for him or anyone to respond to a review, to discount it, but to respond to a review within a profile of the reviewer is more rare. I think it ultimately is a respectful nod to the strange, but at times crucial, relationship between restaurants and esteemed publications. If David Chang has the opportunity to tell his side of the Nishi story and feelings about Wells, then why wouldn’t he do it when The New Yorker comes asking? I think it was an all-press-is-good-press moment.

But it’s not like David Chang needs good press. The crowds come and business stays. And I don’t think it stays because of a brand. Whatever my opinion might be worth to you, I have never had a bad meal at a Chang restaurant. I’ve only been to Nishi once, but I very much enjoyed my meal. I loved the one I had at Ko. If I was a bigger fan of fried chicken, I’d be at Fuku more. Ssam Bar never disappoints. And then there’s Noodle Bar. The place that started it all.

Momofuku Noodle Bar opened a few months before my first trip to New York, and I remember reading about the ramen place that had everyone talking. But I was like, ramen? Really? I wasn’t going to New York to seek out ramen. (Hindsight is 20/20?) In any case, all these many years later, and Noodle Bar still commands a wait. As it should. The food is always excellent, and for me, serves as a reminder of how Chang can take something like ramen or pho or fried chicken or cacio e pepe and tweak it in such a way that makes it innovative and yet still leaves it familiar and comforting. The vegetable dishes at Noodle Bar always grab my attention, easily moving me away from ordering the more popular buns. The pea shoot salad (I think it’s currently being made with chard) is one of my favourite dishes anywhere. Fresh, crunchy, crispy, spicy. I never fail to inhale it. I had a thing for the Hozon chickpea ramen, then the ginger scallion noodles, but now the chicken pho tempts me.

I know that listicles and Best Ofs can often be more about PR than actual tastemaking (I’m looking at you, Grubstreet), but I like reading them, especially the year-end ones. I agree with Bill Addison of Eater who keeps Noodle Bar on their list of Best Restaurants in America. It has been around for more than a decade and is a consistently packed place that both locals and tourists—and critics—like to eat at. I would bet even Pete the Punisher.

I like sitting across from the kitchen.

Soy sauce egg

 

Pea shoots – Asian pear, sesame, kimchi vinaigrette

 

Shaved fennel – dan dan, cilantro, ricotta

 

Chicken pho – culantro, fried shallots, jalapeno oil

 

My love of bread

I have always been excited by a bread basket on the table. I didn’t need Oprah’s Weight Watchers tagline to normalize my love, but it’s good for some laughs. My love does not make me a rare bird. I would think there are very few who grew up in gluten-friendly cultures who do not enjoy the aroma of fresh bread, the pleasure of tearing off a piece, or the yeasty chew. Despite how often it may appear in my Instagram feed, I really don’t eat it that often. Not having any in the house means my diet is largely bread-free. Thus, maybe it’s the more purposeful eating of it that crystallizes why it’s been a life-long love.

First, bread at the table represents a special meal for me. The foil-wrapped IGA garlic bread on lasagna nights. The Safeway tray buns at holiday meals. The cornetti loaf at Old Spaghetti Factory. Crazy Bread at Little Caesars. Breadsticks at the Olive Garden.  Warm sourdough at The Keg. The levain at Semilla. The little boules at Contra. The bread signals that my meal is not of the everyday sort. I am out for dinner or it’s a special occasion or more concerted effort was put into the meal or company is coming over. I didn’t grow up in a house where French bread was picked up for a regular Wednesday night dinner. The presence of bread at a meal means it’s more, it’s better, it’s special. I like that feeling—I love bread.

Second, it represents safety. Even now as a much less picky eater, knowing that there’s bread available means I don’t have to worry about starving if I don’t like anything. Which is important when you also have a big appetite. When I didn’t like pizza, I could eat garlic bread at Pizza Hut or fill up on that Crazy Bread. When there were too many unknown vegetable concoctions at family gatherings, I could fill up on tray buns. At the Mongolian BBQ restaurant, I could supplement my rice with steamed mantou. The presence of bread meant there would be something for me, something to fill me up.  The presence of bread at a meal removes any anxiety about not having enough to eat. I like not being anxious—I love bread.

Especially with butter and salt.

Contra’s bread service

Semilla

Olmsted

Pear, vanilla, and buckwheat roll from Arcade Bakery. (They buttered it for me; left to my own devices, there would have been twice that amount of fat.)

Wildair