Monthly Archives: November 2014

A slice from My Pie Pizzeria Romana

I am a weekend warrior when it comes to eating out. From Sunday night to Friday afternoon, 90% of the time, I eat food that I make. I bring food from home for lunch, and I cook assemble my weeknight dinners. I do this for a number of reasons. One, my temperament. I view the workweek as a time of routine, schedules, desks, and screens. I cannot have fun in the same way when there is an alarm looming, a lunch to make, and a bedtime to adhere to. Like a four-year old needs routine, so do I. Gym, work, home, dinner, TV, bed. Repeat five times. Two, I’m on a budget. I cannot have fun eating out on the weekends if I have spent all my money during the week. The temperament thing also results in me not liking staying in on a Saturday night. That is what Tuesday nights are for. Saturday nights are for going out. (My brain is too old to retrain.) And so yes, by not going out during the week, I have (almost) enough fun money to eat all that I would like to on the weekends. Three, I watch my waistline. Like, a lot. I have always been body conscious, and so I am not immune to New York Skinny. I do work harder at the watching here than I ever have before, but I also eat out more than I ever have before. Not eating out during the week is part of how I exert effort into keeping my frame. I also have no problem eating boring, healthy food to save up for fun, calorific stuff. (A wonky after effect of Catholic school?) Four, both the neighbourhood I work in and the one I live in are relative downers in terms of good places to eat, so it is not like I am constantly tempted. This lack then makes it easier to keep to a budget and watch the calories. Circle of life.

Of course I make exceptions, but I’m stubborn, so they are rare. But there is that 10%. Since finding a decent and affordable sushi place near the office, dining out during the week has been mostly to eat maki rolls for lunch every week or so. Recently, however, the back of my mind reminded me that I have wanted to try the Roman-style pizza al taglio for lunch from nearby My Pie Pizzeria Romana.

I have wanted to try My Pie because I am obsessed with looking at pictures of a similar style of pizza from baker Gabriele Bonci’s slice joint in Rome, Pizzarium. The Instagram account of one of my favourite food writers, Katie Parla, is the source of my obsession as she often posts pictures of her Pizzarium slices. I also think that when Bonci came to New York in the last year or so, he paid a visit to My Pie and gave his seal of approval. At Pizzarium, Bonci places all manner of seasonal and colourful vegetables, cheeses, and meats atop a thin-ish square-shaped dough. From what I understand, al taglio slices are served as is (without reheating) and are cut to the size of your choice.

IMG_3581.JPG

Buffalo mozzarella slice, $4.50

I did not walk into a US offshoot of Pizzarium, but the pizzas were enticing. Amidst all of My Pie’s promotion of sugar-free dough and use of part-skim mozzarella—two characteristics that do not concern me when it comes to pizza—there were a few slices I would decide between. The winner was the buffalo mozzarella slice, which was actually one long rectangle cut in two. Not a bad amount of food for the price. The tomatoes tasted fresh and the cheese was creamy, but it could have used maybe some basil, a heavier hand with the olive oil drizzle, and more salt. I ate it as is and would not have wanted it warm, given how nice fresh mozzarella can be when left alone. Because the dough is stretched thin, the square that had no outer crust was harder to eat and definitely required folding. Perhaps heating it would have made the bottom crisp. But as I was bringing it back to the office, it would have just steamed in the bag and gotten soggy, resulting in something worse altogether. I could go on right now about how a situation like that is exactly why I never get take out or order delivery, but I can save a discussion about my particularities on temperature and texture for another time. Sidenote: Just because I am becoming a less picky eater, does not mean I am less particular.

In any case, the slice was a nice break from my usual cottage cheese, but I was not transported to Rome via My Pie. I hope that Bonci did not actually give the thumbs up because that makes me wonder now about his pizza. Maybe it all got lost in translation and instead of telling them they were doing a “good job,” he actually said something like “nice try.” With a smirk.

IMG_3582

Noodles at Chengdu Tian Fu

In the annals of Rhianna as Picky Eater (we will touch on these annals numerous times, I am sure), Chinese food stands out as a cuisine I have always avoided despite having easy access to it. I would argue that for most of my life, what could be accessed easily was in no way noteworthy. Chinese food was in every mall food court in Edmonton—I should say that winter-for-eight-months-of-the-year Edmonton had many a mall—and it was not at all hard to find a “Chinese/Western Food” restaurant in one of the city’s (also many) strip malls. My family did not even really eat at the Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. By the time I was a child, it had morphed more into a Little Saigon and that ended up being of more interest to our tastes.

But given this access, if there was an ethnic cuisine I should have nostalgia for, it is Chinese (Cantonese, specifically). But nope, the unnatural colours, gloopy cornstarch sauces, heavy batters, and fried rice from steam trays I believed were in abundance never took hold of my heart. Extended family celebrations or Friday nights out that occurred at such places had me sitting in front of a plate of steamed rice and vegetables that I had picked from other dishes. In my twenties, I had too much fun trying to explore other cuisines to think back to Chinese. Even when I moved to Vancouver (a mecca of Chinese food), my motivation was low; a little voice always said, “But you don’t like Chinese food.”

A week before I left Vancouver for New York, I finally had Chinese food that brought me round. It was at a restaurant that was about a three-minute walk from the office that I had worked at for nearly three years. Do not worry, I have slapped myself silly for my stubbornness. Why I finally went? I wanted to try dan dan mian—spicy, porky noodles that are often listed in the appetizer section of Sichuan-style Chinese restaurants. The prospect of a bowl of chewy noodles definitely has power over me. That is why I eventually also found a taste for ramen as well. Almost too al dente is how I like my noodles, and the ones at Peaceful were perfect for schooling this picky eater. I was smitten.

This did not mean that once I arrived in this East Coast mecca of Chinese food that I was all about finding more noodles. Smitten—not in love. There was too much good pizza and too many good sandwiches for me to indulge in here in New York before I could make time for exploring Chinese. Still, for a long time, I wanted to make the big foodie trip out to the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens to hit a bunch of different places on one visit and appreciate the variety of tastes that Chinese cuisine has to offer. Finally, this summer I did so. Located at the end of the 7 subway line, Flushing is not really a place you visit for a quick noodle fix. I hit up many of the stalls and quick-service restaurants that make it easy to get one thing, eat, and then move on to the next. There are too many resources that list what the greatest hits are and where to find them, so I will refrain from repeating what a quick Google search will yield. (But I did like this one for the inclusion of the map.)

Not surprisingly, the biggest hit for me that day in Flushing was the plate of Chengu-style cold noodles from Chengdu Tian Fu. The Sichuan kiosk is in the basement of the Golden Shopping Mall. And that is “mall” in the loosest sense of the word. Based on a post by a Queens-based blogger, I was there specifically for these noodles and these noodles alone.

Chengdu-style cold noodles

Chengdu-style cold noodles

Dreams came true that day. The noodles were oh-so-chewy and cool for the summer heat. The garlic was aggressive in a way you secretly always want it to be despite knowing you might have to talk to someone afterward. The chili oil and black vinegar resulted in a perfect sour-spicy kick, with the heat registering more as tingly lips than a burning throat. I think that is the special ma la quality often spoken of in regards to Sichuan peppercorns.

All I could think of on the train ride home was, more. More soon.
Less than two weeks later I was back. Turns out Flushing could be a place for a quick noodle fix.

IMG_3434-0.JPG

Pre-mix dan dan noodles

So, when the heat subsided and a fall chill made itself apparent, I went back to the basement to try the dan dan noodles. Although warm instead of cold and with a good dose of ground pork, the dan dan noodles were almost like the fraternal twin to the cold ones. The same chew, the same heat, but with just a few other extras like the pork and bok choy. A strong arm for mixing is required to ensure all the good bits are scattered thoroughly and the sauce evenly coats. But the work is well rewarded by mouthfuls of slick strands.

More soon, says the Chinese food convert.

IMG_3435-0.JPG

Post-mix dan dan noodles

Thanksgiving specials at Momofuku Milk Bar

I cannot say that I’m a devoted fan of the Momofuku empire. Devoted liker, maybe, having some memorable meals at both the Noodle and Ssam Bars here in New York. I’m definitely interested in going to Momofuku Ko, and I’m intrigued by the switch to a State Bird Provisions-esque dim sum style at Ma Peche, but I rarely have a strong pull toward the peach. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been a bit sour on David Chang’s personality. But I’ve warmed considerably since working my way through season one of “Mind of a Chef” on Netflix.

The Momofuku Milk Bar, however, has always been a place I’ve desperately wanted to be a true fangirl for, especially because of my love of soft serve ice cream. But I always end up at a point of apathy. The highs and lows I’ve experienced even out to a feeling of, “Okay, I guess I’ll try ____ because I’m right in front of the shop.”

My first taste of Milk Bar chief Christina Tosi’s soft serve was when there was only one shop in the East Village. I fell hard for the horchata in 2009. That was back in the good old days when it was just the one shop and everything was made on site. The cookies you saw on display, greasing up the parchment under them, were the cookies you could actually buy. Now, with multiple shops across the city and in Toronto, everything is made in a central commissary and then delivered. Feel free to call me a snob, but I’m not so down with buying treats that have travelled. It’s irrational, I know, but it reminds me too much of Starbucks pastries. But I understand the logistics and economics behind it. And if it means more people get to have Milk Bar treats, that’s not a bad thing… yadda yadda yadda.

Also feel free to call me crazy, but there’s something unique about the texture of the soft serve. It’s kind of gluey? Sticky? It has a different mouth feel, moves differently on a utensil, and melts differently than most other soft serves I’ve had. I would not be offended if I’m the only one to feel this way. But it’s there for me, and it prevents my soft-serve-loving heart from ever declaring Milk Bar the best in my books. Same goes with the taste. No matter which flavour I try, they all have the same aftertaste. I’m 68% confident that in a blind tasting, I could identify Milk Bar soft serve based on aftertaste alone. I think it’s the large amounts of sugar or sweetener. Despite Tosi’s great insistence on the importance of salt in sweet treats (hooray!), she still can easily tip the balance to too sweet too often (or always). But I think that’s her thing, given how childhood nostalgia plays a role in her baking. Maybe all the sugar is the culprit in the texture issue, too?

But there is no question about my admiration and respect for Tosi. I’ve had great success at home with the corn cookies and the crack pie. And I still keep watch with every menu change, as at the very least, I enjoy seeing what creative new flavours she comes up with, even if I know I will never try them.

The most recent menu change, or more specifically, the November specials, beckoned to me. Because they’re allllll about Thanksgiving’s best dishes: Turkey and pumpkin pie.

IMG_3518-0

Pumpkin pie cake truffle on my small hand

Cake is not something I’m very fond of, so I’ve never actually tried the Milk Bar’s little cake truffles before this. If they are all as good as the pumpkin pie ones, I will now be keeping as close of a watch on the truffle flavours as I do with the soft serve. Of the three specials I tried, these were far and away my favourite. Not as good as pumpkin pie, obviously, but the next best thing. Dare I say, even better than good pumpkin/pie ice cream.

IMG_3519-0.JPG

One bite down

I thought they would be drier, and more cake-like inside, but I actually found them to be a bit more creamy, like real pumpkin pie or pumpkin cheesecake. I suspect this is from the condensed milk. The outer coating is a mix of graham crumbs, crushed pepitas, and a good hit of salt. It’s a substantial coating, so biting through gives you a sense of pie filling plus crust.  While I’m not one to eat pumpkin pie without whipped cream, I have no complaints about what amounts to portable pie. When I bought the pack of three ($4.35), I immediately ate one and then wrapped the remaining two for later that evening and the next day. The pumpkin euphoria that lingered after finishing the first one meant instead that I saved number two and number three for precisely 61 and 62 minutes later.

As a lover of cold desserts, I was happy to read that the truffles are to be refrigerated. Cold pumpkin pie forever. The Milk Bar website tells me that they freeze very well. Currently, there are now 9 5 balls in my freezer, removing any need to visit a Milk Bar suspiciously often. You can buy three packs for the reduced price of $12. I’m sure I’ll see that charge again on my credit card before December 1 rolls around.

Pumpkin pie soft serve

Pumpkin pie soft serve

Score! The Milk Bar location with the pumpkin pie flavour is my local! And score again with the pumpkin pie flavour game being really strong with the spices. Texture and aftertaste aside, I really enjoyed this soft serve. I find that many pumpkin ice creams, most specifically of the hard type, need a heavier hand with the spices. I mean, that’s what pumpkin pie is all about. Pumpkin on its own doesn’t have much flavour, but it lends itself well to creamy or custardy things combined with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, etcetera. A good pumpkin pie/treat/ice cream should be aggressive with them, just like a good gingerbread. This wins on that front.

IMG_3516-0.JPG

Thanksgiving croissant

The loser? The Thanksgiving croissant. Again, I might be alone in my feelings, but this was extremely disappointing. Especially given the crazy fanfare this annual special has received. Not cronut-level crazy, but it has always seemed a big deal in New York foodie (a horrible, yet apt, word) culture when November rolls around and this sucker is on offer. I was looking forward to finally getting around to trying it. Usually, I’m not very enticed by the savoury options at Milk Bar because it seems like it would just be more enjoyable to go to the Ssam or Noodle Bar.

IMG_3517-0.JPG

I was hoping for a money shot bursting with turkey.

All I can say is, greasy, understuffed, and underseasoned. First off, it’s not a croissant when it’s made with yeasted dough. The stuffing bread didn’t taste much like stuffing. Celery salt is not the only flavour in stuffing. How about sage? There wasn’t enough turkey or gravy, and the globs of cranberry sauce were too large for the uneven distribution of meat. But… like a croissant, it was laden with butter. As the croissant is served warm, your fingers are soon slippery with fat. In a bad way.

A big, bready fail.

A cronut has yet to cross my lips, but I’m not immune to hype. I won’t say “lesson learned” and stop reading about the next thing that the food industry puts out there to create frenzy.  I’ll curse the money lost on this, but I’ll remind myself that part of why I love living in this city is that I have access to such things. In honour of the holiday, thank you, New York. You’re a peach!

Thanksgiving hero at Parm

Thanksgiving is my favourite food holiday. Because it is essentially the only food holiday in my life. When I was growing up, my family celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter with big meals that all looked to Thanksgiving: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing. The only things subject to variation were vegetables (actually rarely varied), salads, and dessert. Dinner with my mom’s family meant we would also have perogies and cabbage rolls care of my Ukrainian grandma. Someone might have also done a ham at Easter, but otherwise, we knew what we liked and what to expect.

We ate meals with both sides of my family, so I was guaranteed six “Thanksgiving” meals per year. The result is that I am a big fan of the typical holiday food. I do not even care if the turkey is dry, the pumpkin pie gelatinous, or the green beans overcooked. Nostalgia. Memories. Tradition. This is not the meal I need anyone to look to Food & Wine for. I just want to feel like maybe one of my grandmas was in the kitchen, either the one who used too much butter in her mash or the one who used none at all. Nothing fancy, just food full of love.

And even though I always say I do not like leftovers, I know there is nothing quite like a day-after turkey sandwich. For the past three years, Parm has been making a very good riff on this beloved holiday staple with their Thanksgiving hero. It has morphed a bit since the first time I had it, but it still contains the holiday standards.

IMG_3570.JPG

Hot turkey, sausage stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mayo all on a fresh semolina hero roll. Parm has some of the best roasted turkey in the city, so it is a treat just to have that. It is white meat, but it is the juiciest I have ever had. The first time I had the sandwich, a schmear of butternut squash and fried sage leaves were also included. I did miss these this year, but the loss was comforted by the new addition of a side of house gravy for dipping or spreading.

It is very close to being the leftover sandwich of my dreams. The stuffing is sufficiently seasoned and spiced, the cranberry not too sweet, and the roll soft enough to squish for a bite, yet substantial enough that it does not turn to mush when gravy is liberally applied (a bit heftier than the one at Roberta’s). Which, of course, must be done. It is not outstanding gravy, but like at a family meal, it gets the job done and reminds you again of the fabulous food holiday that is Thanksgiving.

IMG_3571.JPG

I have possibly come to love Thanksgiving food even more since moving to the U.S. In Canada, Thanksgiving is suddenly upon you. September is for mourning summer, and then with the calendar change to October, you are suddenly receiving emails about who is hosting and what to bring. The day after marks the change to Halloween, and then November 1 marks the switch to Christmas. Down here, October is for Halloween, December is for Christmas, and the whole long month of November is for Thanksgiving preparation and specials. I am all over the fact that restaurants push the turkey and pumpkin all month. Even if I make my own leftover sandwich on Black Friday, I am left with wanting this one again. But if I do not get the chance, thank god I can get a regular turkey sandwich there the other 11 months of the year.

Single-serving Thai: Khao Kang and Eim Khao Mun Kai

For me, the biggest challenge when it comes to dining alone is a restaurant that serves family-style dishes. Sometimes, I’ll happily over-order to be able to try a range of things. This often happens on holiday when Vacation Rhianna takes over and cares little about cost or waste. Real Rhianna feels guilty about over-ordering both because I keep to a budget and don’t like reheated leftovers (yet another story for another time). Thai and Indian food most often lose out. Stubborn, I don’t want to go for Indian and only order one dish, too much rice, and naan. I want to share multiple veg and non-veg dishes, appetizers, and carbs. So, I patiently wait until dining partners can be arranged. I’m not yet ready for solo trips to the buffet.

IMG_3460.JPG

Three-item plates from Khao Kang

Recent Thai developments, on the other hand, have made waits for such feasts much more tolerable. Both Khao Kang and Eim Khao Mun Kai in Elmhurst, Queens, offer the closest thing to solo-friendly food court dining without, thankfully, the mall food court.

Khao Kang offers multiple dishes from a steam table. Walking in, you’re immediately hit with the strong aroma of fish sauce. I knew we were in for a treat. Each dish can be ordered a la carte, but the standard order is a mixed plate of two or three dishes over steamed rice for $7 or $7.50. An incredible bargain for Thai food. I’ve read that steam table dining is something indeed seen in Thailand and that the dishes at Khao Kang are spiced according to the local Thai community’s palate and not your typical “white people spicy.”

From the dishes I tried, the penang curry with pork had a decent kick, but I did add some spicy fish sauce to my green curry with chicken. My friend G and I both had the mild pumpkin and egg dish and declared it our favourite of the night. It was an unexpected pairing, but it worked perfectly with the creaminess of the squash enhanced by richness from the egg. While we couldn’t wash down our dinner with a Singha, there are a number of non-alcoholic beverages available, including the crowd-pleasing Thai iced tea. Desserts are on offer, too, and we tried a coconut-tapioca pudding and a custard-stuffed pumpkin (the winner).

The best Thai? No, but an awesome option when I’m in need of something cheap, quick, and comforting, and when I want to try a dish I might otherwise have trouble finding.

IMG_3464.JPG

Hainanese chicken rice/khao mun kai at Eim Khao Mun Kai

Eim Khao Mun Kai serves just one dish: khao mun kai or Hainanese chicken rice. A Thai dish with Chinese origins, khao mun kai is poached chicken served over rice that has been cooked in the spiced (exceedingly mild) poaching liquid. It is served with some garlicky ginger sauce, broth, and cucumbers. While many are aware of this dish via a famous food cart in Portland, Oregon, New York has only recently seen chicken rice-only places open up. Eim’s is a small place down the street from Khao Kang, with just a few seats. More are not really necessary as they seem to do swift take-out business for the single menu item.

In terms of looks, the dish doesn’t have a lot going for it. Almost colourless, the dish encourages a taste based more on how others have fallen in love with it rather than your own desire to dig into the plate of beige. Any apathy fades quickly with a few bites. The serving dished up gives you plenty of tender chicken and aromatic rice. The accompanying sauce adds the right amount of spice and depth without overpowering the delicate flavours of the chicken and rice. I like to add extra chilies, garlic, and sweet soy sauce to mine. The cucumbers are used to cut through the spice, and the broth serves practically as a well-paired beverage. While eating in, I’ve always been offered more sauce and broth when it’s noticed that my bowls are empty. While the chicken is the main event, my friend L and I often say how much we could just eat bowls after bowls of the rice. Glistening with fat from the poaching liquid, it is very special rice. Definitely worth a trip out to Queens for.

A set plate for one person is $8.99 and includes a soda. I treat the broth-soaked chunk of daikon at the bottom of my broth as dessert and give more thanks that I can get an easy Thai fix when I’m just doing one-bum dining.