Monthly Archives: December 2014

Semilla

When I started food blogging again, I did not give any thought to a theme, shtick, or goal. I just knew that I enjoyed talking about food, and a blog would be the easiest way as I do not have someone always around to converse with (perennially single). Previous food blogging was more about sharing recipes, but as I cook so infrequently now, I have no content. Writing about what I eat when out is the obvious choice, but I always wonder if I do need a shtick. I can talk about dining alone, but there is not a whole lot to that. There are dozens upon dozens (hundreds upon hundreds?) of food blogs about NYC restaurants, and I have no unique take beyond my personhood. I read all the same print and online sources that the rest of them do. Hell, I read the rest of them. I have no relevant expertise or experience, and I do not like the idea of giving a review, per se. I am also a carb-addicted, picky eater in recovery, so my adventures are quite tame.

My party line is that this is a project for myself. But I do like sharing my adventures with my faraway friends who cannot join me… or to prove that I do not just hermit away with Netflix. Even when feeling confident in going forward with a blog, one thing I am always torn about is whether to write about super trendy/new/hyped restaurants. Is it worth telling you that I got swept up by the Fear of Missing Out? My own discomfort with it is the real reason I wonder whether to post about such places because you can, again, read the blogs and view the heat maps for yourself.

Is it enjoyable to read another voice that contributes to the hype machine? Only my page views will reveal the answer. This brings me to Semilla, a new “vegetable-forward” tasting menu restaurant in Williamsburg. It is getting lots of written and Instagram buzz, most especially for its bread course (a huge draw for me), and for the fact that it is more meat-as-condiment than vegetarian. Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan would approve, I am sure. A pescatarian friend and I were all over trying to secure reservations for a holiday celebration.

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Grilled celeriac and beer soup, celeriac “tagliatelle,” cheddar cheese, quinoa

If a restaurant aims to be seasonal, what do you think that might entail for a month like December? Nothing very pretty or fresh tasting. Root vegetables, right? Those lumpy masses that can often still carry nuances of their literal mother earth. Could you handle eight savoury courses of winter vegetables? We did, and they were delicious. Perhaps not put-down-your-fork-and-sigh delicious, but creative, tasty, and unexpected. All of the major players had a part: celeriac, rutabaga, turnips, potatoes, and beets. And because you cannot have a winter menu without it, squash showed herself in the final savoury course. Accents included salt cod (the only non-dairy protein), whey, fermented ramps, and preserved blueberries. The two sweet courses were not indulgent, but the flavours of grape and grapefruit left their mark.

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Fermented concord grape sorbet, kombu cream, malt

The indulgence for us was the bread basket. Yes, please, to that offer of a refill. That night, it was an oat porridge loaf (a direct shout out to Chad Robertson of Tartine?). I feel like you are either a person who gets the magic of bread and butter or does not. I am sorry if you do not. I am not going to get into the intense pleasure and comfort that can come from a slice of fresh bread with a slathering of good butter. I do not consider it other worldly. It is a pleasure that reconnects me to the simplicity of life and what we can make with fire and our hands. Sorry again—I got into it. Taking a bite-sized buttered piece of that bread and then dipping it into the sour buttermilk was an exciting change of pace. Just a quick dip, though, to avoid any sogginess.

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Pam’s oat porridge bread, Cowbella butter and buttermilk

I would totally return during a different season to see how the menu changes because while $75 is very reasonable for 10 courses, I will not be rushing back for the rutabaga spring rolls. But, I am glad that I did not face my FOMO so I could have them.

Prosperity Dumpling

One of my favourite games to play while strolling the streets of NYC or riding the subway is something I like to call “How do they do it?” That is, how does that person make it work to live in this city. Because while the living is good here, it certainly is not easy (read: affordable). I think that the only people in this city immune to constantly juggling money and priorities are the billionaires. Everyone else, regardless of how well they manage their money, also comes up against the act of weighing the pros and cons of spending x amount on this rather than that, whether that be real estate/rent, clothing, entertainment, food, education, you name it. I think it is fascinating to learn about or project what might be someone’s priorities and thus the trade-offs he or she makes to live here. For example, because I do not want a roommate (my next will be called husband), I give up a lot of my disposable income to rent. Hence, the budget. For others who may want to shop, drink, or eat out more than me, roommate(s) living is a given. So, I sit there, on the train, looking at the people across from me, and ask myself how they do it. Do they have four roommates or five? Do they only eat instant ramen? Do they never go to movies because they rely on Seamless for every meal? Are they contemplating a move to Bay Ridge to keep their Bloomies balance in check? When was the last time they stepped on a plane if they go through $400 per weekend eating and drinking off the Eater Heat Maps? Sometimes I do not read on the subway.

While eating out can get very expensive, very fast, there are loopholes. Dollar pizza slices still exist, bananas can be found at sidewalk fruit vendors for 25 cents, and you might even find a hot dog stand that will sell you a dirty water dog for $2 or less. This is hardly a well-balanced diet, but I am just pointing out (with hyperbole) that cheap eats are not hard to find, with many places receiving notoriety for having a good cheap eat. Prosperity Dumpling in Chinatown is one of these places. It appears on many lists and does swift business with locals and tourists alike.

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The most popular option is four fried pork and chive dumplings for $1. Kind of ridiculous. And in my opinion, kind of ridiculous as a destination eat. The place is small and dingy, but with heavy turnover, I had no worries. The steady stream of customers meant that my dumplings were not fried to order, but ready and waiting for the next hand that would present that measliest of bills. They were hot and fresh, indeed, but let me count the ways in which I would have preferred to have spent another dollar to have the style of dumplings at Lam Zhou: They were too doughy, they were not crispy enough on their fried side, despite the appearance of green, there was barely any chive flavour, and worst of all, after one bite, the pork stuffing easily falls out and sits there, bolus-like, next to the flabby now-empty shell.

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But, these bloated perogies were only $1, and their heft could easily serve as lunch or perhaps more importantly, as the greasy starch needed late at night to help soothe the effects of too many beers. Maybe the kid with six (seven?) roommates only has $1 and does not want the extra walk to or wait of Lam Zhou. If they get the job done, can they be so bad? For me to eat again, yes. But to add to my game playing on the subway, not at all. Because now I can think, do they eat Prosperity dumplings or dollar slices to be able to afford those jeans?

Sao Mai

Hoi An, Vietnam, 2009: As I am cutting my fresh rice noodles destined for pho, I am talking about how I will make my way eventually to Hanoi and remark that I look forward to trying “cha ca.” The men surrounding me all giggle. There are four of them: two drivers who have brought small groups of tourists to the Red Bridge Cooking School, my instructor, Chef Phi, and his brother-sous chef, Anh. Beet red, I ask if I have pronounced the famous turmeric and dill fish dish of North Vietnam wrong. No, Phi reassures me, they are just amused that I used the Vietnamese term.

Truth be told, I never had pho until going to Vietnam, but there I was, a week into my trip, only one bowl of pho down, and I was already making my own. Soup was not something I ate for a long time (I still veer away from liquid meals), and when I returned to it, I was more comfortable with purees. Broths scared me because I knew they were born from carcasses, and they all looked like dirty water. It took me a while to get down with carcass fat, but I was ready when I came to Vietnam and especially when I had locals hold my hand in the art of making and eating it.

While the other two dozen or so cooking students were in another part of the complex, I was the private student of Chef Phi that day as no one else paid the $15 extra for the deluxe class and market tour. Needless to say, it was some of the best extra few dollars I have ever spent. Phi and Anh did most of the cooking, but obviously my eyes were opened to the beauty behind this dirty water broth when I got to have a hand in making it: the grilling involved, the Christmas-y spices, and the supple noodles all helped me overcome my standard Vietnamese ordering rut.

And while I have come to crave a good bowl of pho, I have not moved away from determining my go-to Vietnamese restaurant based on how much I also like their vermicelli, or bun. Right now, I am all about Sao Mai in the East Village. I have tried Chinatown standards such as Nha Trang, Pho Grand, and Pho Bang, but I have not been overly impressed. I would agree with others that the best Vietnamese food in New York is probably found at Bun-ker, but it is in Ridgewood, Queens. To get there, I have to take either two trains and a bus, or two trains and a long walk. And their prices are almost double what you will find elsewhere. Yes, it is the best I have tried here and their ingredients are high quality, but it is not worth the trouble when I can get to Sao Mai in a third of the time and half the cost. Budget and time sometimes beat “best.”

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I almost always get the bun bo nuong, or the vermicelli with grilled beef, with an add-on of a spring roll. I will also ask for an extra plate of herbs to supplement the few leaves they include in the bowl. One of my biggest takeaways from Vietnam was seeing how important and what large quantities of fresh herbs play in the cuisine. A bowl of bun is completely different with a heavy hand of herbs. It becomes the cold noodle salad it should be rather than the comforting bowl of noodles it often serves as. This is tropical heat cuisine, remember. Bun is such a simple dish, but it can easily vary between restaurants. I like my noodles properly skinny like vermicelli (I have had thick spaghetti-like noodles before). I do not want my noodles to taste like they have been sitting out. The nuoc cham should have a some sweetness. I do not want my meat too fatty.

But sometimes I crave a bowl of pho. Old Man Winter often pushes me in that direction. One of the primary lessons I learned from my Saigon friends about eating pho was that you do not drown your broth with hoisin and hot sauce. A proper pho broth should not even need such doctoring. Instead, you take a side plate and spoon out both sauces, like ketchup for fries. You then dip your beef into the sauces before eating. Thus, an easy measure for determining how good the pho is at your restaurant of choice is to taste the broth naked and see how it measures up. Sao Mai’s does. The cinnamon and star anise shine, and there is that bass note of smoke from the grilled beef and aromatics that go into the making of the broth. Also of note is that the noodles are never overcooked.

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I prefer my spring rolls made with rice paper wrappers rather than those made of wheat, but I will still give props to Sao Mai for serving their rolls as they should be with lettuce and herbs. To the uninitiated: That is not garnish on the plate. The Vietnamese eat spring rolls by rolling them in a lettuce leaf with herbs and then dipping them. Hot, crispy, cooling, fresh.

The hospitality at Sao Mai leaves much to be desired, as the servers rarely crack a smile and often rush you to order and then to leave—so it is kind of like you are in Chinatown instead of the East Village. I do not mind the lack of niceties when all I want is to hoover a bowl of noodles. But, sometimes, I would not mind a giggle when my order is “fuh.”

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Prune

This past summer was my third living in New York, and it was the one that solidified that I love August in the city. Specifically, I love August weekends in the city. The heat is often unbearable, the humidity at its peak, and the air thick with the funk of hot garbage, but it is a fantastic time to explore the city. Why? Because everyone is gone. Whether it be to Long Island or upstate, locals flee the heat on the weekend and leave the streets noticeably quieter. With the majority of tourists crammed into midtown and at museums, it is easy to avoid them, and thus, have the spoils all to yourself. Forever a city slicker, I will always choose cement over sand, so I do not feel lonely or jealous when everyone else is getting salty, beach waves and sun-kissed skin. The city on an August weekend is relaxed and easy to manoeuvre. My favourite part has been seeing how easy it is to get into restaurants that are usually horrible for wait times.

Prune—small and famous and always busy—had a whole row of bar seats for me to choose from one Saturday night. A few days prior, I had begun listening to the audio version of Blood, Bones, & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, the memoir by Prune’s lauded chef Gabrielle Hamilton. Having always wanted to eat at Prune, perhaps never desperately, I was definitely drawn to it now that I was listening to Hamilton herself tell her story and the beginnings of Prune. And once sitting down and taking everything in, the appeal of the restaurant is obvious. It has the small, simple, charming, effortless vibe down pat. The lipstick pink accents do not feel contrived, and the just-a-smidge too tight feel of so many New York restaurants seems less pronounced. Perhaps it was the warm light, white walls, and complete openness to 1st street that made it so that evening.

I came shortly after Hamilton had done a major overhaul of the dinner menu, so I had no chance to try any of the classic dishes like radishes with butter or fried sweetbreads. I made my meal with a few small plates: a daily special of Jersey tomatoes with melted butter, Greek dolmades, a cold roast beef salad, and a blueberry tart.

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Cold roast beef with mint and shallots

Although I think she has now returned to the old favourites, I was not disappointed by the new dishes. That is not much of a compliment, so I will rephrase to say, everything I had was delicious and gave me appreciation for why Hamilton is so celebrated. There was overt simplicity to all the dishes, but I know that unskilled hands would have rendered them boring. I can easily cut thick slices of tomato and douse them in melted butter and salt. But I feel that in Prune’s kitchen, they knew exactly how thick to cut the tomatoes, what temperature the butter should be at, and just how much salt to sprinkle.  The dolmades were bathed in the kind of olive oil you know you probably could afford to buy but do not, fearing you might slide too far into food snob decadence. The cold roast beef was my favourite. It was served with what was described, I think, as a Thai tom yum dressing, but the combination of beef, mint, and fish sauce had me dreaming of Vietnam. The pink middle of the slices gave just the right amount of chew, and the shallots were sliced thin enough to provide a good amount of bite, not dragon breath. Add in a cocktail and a glass of wine, and I had a very pleasant first experience at Prune.

Hamilton has recently released an official Prune cookbook and with it has come a renewed interest in and respect for the restaurant. I have a little itch of wanting to go back, especially for the well-regarded brunch. But now is not the time to possibly wait two hours for a fried oyster omelette. I think I can wait until August.

Lam Zhou Hand Made Noodle

Now that I have established that I eat and am open to exploring Chinese food, I will now inundate you with noodle and dumpling posts. They are some of the most affordable and Rhianna-friendly items of the cuisine, not to mention easy for ordering when dining alone. You may have noticed that my diet is heavy on the carbohydrates, so they are likely to make repeat performances here.

I hope I did not make it sound as though Flushing was the be all and end all for cheap Chinese eating in New York. Manhattan’s Chinatown is legendary, and while it may feel like more of an adventure to spend almost an hour on the subway to eat noodles in Queens, I am not opposed to cutting that time by more than half to eat something just as fun.

My always increasing list of restaurants I want to visit included a couple of places in Chinatown known for their handmade noodles and cheap prices. Lam Zhou Hand Made Noodle was the first one I tried. It is a cramped little restaurant located in the quieter part of Chinatown that is more lower Lower East Side. There is a large bilingual menu on the wall, but no real descriptions. To avoid being the Conspicuous White Person asking too many questions, I knew what I wanted based on my research: the only non-soup noodle dish, the dry noodles with minced pork sauce. I am quite choosy when it comes to broth-based soups, so my toes are not ready to dip into this section of the menu.  I also got an order of pork and chive dumplings, boiled, not fried, because Lam Zhou is reputed to have beautifully thin dumpling skins.

To place my order, I walked past the few communal tables to speak to a woman sat before a giant pile of pork filling, skins, and uncooked dumplings. At a table across the two-foot kitchen entrance from her stands a man stretching and pulling dough for noodles. This is an open kitchen.

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Dry noodles with minced pork sauce, $5.50

The noodles come out within minutes and are covered in what others have described as a Chinese-style Bolognese. It is ground pork and minced onions in a brown cornstarch-y sauce. Not at all complex, the sauce is simply meaty and savoury, not rich or spicy. The bok choy adds more texture than flavour, but the green is welcome. Sriracha or chili paste is a must for some depth.

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But I have not come for the sauce. The noodles beneath are why I ran that morning. Thick and long and chewy, yet also surprisingly soft. There is such joy in picking up a tangle of noodles with your chopsticks, raising them high to try and release the clingy ones, and then swooping them down into your mouth for a hearty chew, the chopsticks then serving to protect your chin from the oily tails. The THWACK THWACK THWACK of the noodle dough being hit against that table behind me became the rhythm of my chewing until I got to the bottom of the bowl.

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Boiled dumpling, eight for $2

Oh, those dumplings. Eight was too many, but who cares if some go to waste when they cost less than a subway fare. The skins were delicate, silky, and yielding. I agree that getting them fried would risk breakage. And, oh, that filling. Hot sauce and vinegar are nice for dipping, but they can easily distract from the delicious dose of chives. The filling is packed loose enough so that you can take a bite without a meatball falling out and leaving an empty shell flaccidly hanging on to the chopsticks—the woman who took my order is clearly a master. But like any dumpling, they should be eaten hot and fresh, as silk can quickly turn to rubber from the breeze that comes through the open door.

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