Monthly Archives: January 2015

Chutneys

My favourite New-York-based food writer is Robert Sietsema. He currently writes for Eater, and while he excels at the cheap eats and ethnic beat, he has also done very fine reviews of your typical buzzy new openings. Lucky Peach recently wrote of him:

In the future, when food is the only thing that anyone cares or talks about—when the last guitar has been pawned for sashimi and paintbrushes are only used for applying egg wash to pastries—there will be whispers in the darkest corners, in the places where the idea of the counterculture hasn’t been trumped out of existence by gout and gluttony. Those whispers will be of a man called ROBERT SIETSEMA: a hero of the people who rode the rails and reported on the city like it was a living breathing thing, who told stories about food that was of the people, not the other way around. Who was intrepid when others were tepid; whose Metrocard expenses must have rivaled other critics’ Chablis costs.

It is Sietsema who has ultimately been my inspiration for finding the fun and delicious through explorations of the small, cramped, and possibly far-flung restaurants of this city. So, I took special note when he wrote that, “when it comes to presenting obscure regional specialties restricted to small geographic areas of South India, Chutneys is without peer. And currently, there’s no better dining adventure in (or out) of the five boroughs.”  Thus, it would be a when, not if, excursion, to Chutneys, especially as I have a pescatarian friend who would be all over being my date for a meatless feast (as South Indian ones always are).

Feast as if it was our last night on earth, we did. Perhaps partly because we decided to make the journey to Jersey City on a bone-chilling cold night. Getting to Jersey City only requires a $5 and change return fare on the PATH train, but let me tell you, once you’re out of the safety of tight streets and tall buildings, the temperature drops considerably and the wind bites more ferociously as you walk the streets looking for the Little India. Paying ill-attention to your Google Maps and taking a wrong turn to increase your walk by nearly 15 minutes probably makes things worse, too.

What many, many delights would await us once we entered the harsh lighting and blasting warmth of Chutneys. Nearly empty at 8 pm (it filled to its almost large capacity when we left two hours later), Chutneys presented a swath of large empty booths for us to choose from. We quickly took one to being the winter process of removing our coats, wiping our noses, and settling in while our extremities defrosted. We let Sietsema be our guide and went almost exclusively with his recommendations. As it was a large menu, we had nothing to lose with going along with someone we trusted. We completely overordered, eating somewhere between one-third and one-half of what arrived. But when things are cheap, one of us likes leftovers, and the cold air has you cursing your journey to Jersey, you party hard.

The server only asked us if that was all when we gave our order, never flinching to suggest we might have ordered too much or too less: Gobi 65, Chettinad idli, Mount Road parotta with salna, pongal, and a Nilgiri vegetable korma.

My friend rightly described the Gobi 65 (picture on Instagram), slightly spicy battered and fried cauliflower, as what movie theaters should be selling instead of popcorn. Maybe they do in South India? The dish was hot, crispy, and greaseless nuggets of the white brassica that came with mint and tamarind chutneys. Like with popcorn, it was hard to stop eating them. Your brain registered that you were eating something deep-fried and battered, but your stomach was in complete denial.

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Chettinad idli

So much so that it also didn’t register the crazy chunks of deep-fried (again, greaseless) idli that were slathered in something called a Chettinad gravy (accompanied by the regular South Indian trio of sambar, coconut chutney, and tomato chutney). Think of a regular snow-white, steamed idli. Then think about cutting it into three or four fingers.  Let someone with experience then deep fry them to golden perfection. That’s the base of this dish. Gravy is the wrong translation for a North American audience (even an Italian American one), as what was atop those fried idli fingers was thick and chunky with onions and whole chilies, almost dry in that it was not dripping or slipping off as you either dunked a finger in sambar and/or spooned on a little chutney.  Again, brain recognizes that you’re eating chunks of deep-fried starch, but your taste buds and stomach are having too much fun to care right now.

The parotta was only slight relief from the fryer, as this beautifully coiled and flaky bread did not touch a heat source without some good fatty lubrication. Unlike most bread orders at Indian restaurants, this parotta was more like an entrée as it came with a vegetable salna, a bowl of curry for dipping. Next time ordering parotta on its own would suffice, but the salna was delicious, and it had a nice degree of heat to it.

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Pongal

This was my dish of the night, mostly because the flavour and texture was so unexpected. I think after my first forkful, i said, “This is the most delicious mush I have ever had.” A mixture of rice, lentils, spices, and ghee, pongal is next level starch. You do not want to substitute this for rice and cover it with curry. It has far too much flavour from the ghee and the spices. The texture isn’t really mushy in the sense that it’s water-logged. It’s more like rice that has been overcooked to the point where it becomes creamy. It can hold that log shape not because it has sat in a mold, but because there’s a pliability (like dough?). My dream would be to have a giant bowl of pongal for breakfast, with a fried egg on top. I fantasize about breaking the yolk then mixing it into a rich ghee-y glory and eating it all with a tiny spoon to extend my pleasure.

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Nilgiri korma

Did you ever take a Religious Studies course in university and learn about Jains? You know, the ones who are so devoutly vegetarian that they do not eat bugs? This korma was a “homestyle curry” in Chutneys’ Jain section. Sietsema assured us that the mint sauce didn’t taste like toothpaste. Truth. It was one of the most interesting Indian dishes I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t say fresh, but there was a herbaceous note that often isn’t tasted with ghee-laden sauces. It was excellent. And also carried some unexpected heat. This came with a very unnecessary bowl of steamed basmati rice.

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Chutneys at every turn. And ghee.

We ate until we burst (at least I did), and I’d love to know what the servers thought of the two white girls who ordered enough for a small family. We both said it was some of the best, if not the best, Indian food we’ve had in New York. I find that time and again I go for Indian food and all the dishes taste the same or there’s a lack of complexity. Not here.  There’s many new food adventures to be found within this menu, and I hope to come back and experience them. Until then, I will be burning up Google trying to find an easy pongal recipe. Because, hey, now I can easily get ghee at Trader Joe’s!

Cosme

One of my New Year projects is to learn Spanish. I am not planning any trips to a Spanish-speaking country, I do not have a Spanish-speaking boyfriend (always-already single and looking), and I am not interested in exploring the telenovela section of my Hulu account. I am just getting old and feeling dumber with every year that passes. Time and time again I read articles about how knowing multiple languages is good for your brain, especially the learning process, so I thought that a language class might make me feel a little more competent and be something to make the winter go by with a little bit more enjoyment. At the very least, it would “get me out there.” I didn’t want to return to the French or Italian I had learned in school and university, respectively, so I went with Spanish. I already know the basic construction of Latin-based languages, and it’s a language I could theoretically practice in New York. Bueno!

I sweetened the deal by telling myself that I would go out for dinner after class to explore some of the restaurants in and around the area (Flatiron) so that I wouldn’t have to rush home at a later hour to make assemble myself something. Because it’s hibernation season, staying in on the weekend for balance would not be a problem.

Cosme is a Mexican restaurant with a pedigreed chef that has recently opened with a lot of to-do. I don’t think I’ve read anything that is less than glowing with regards to the food and the space. Knowing that the full menu was also available in the bar, I definitely had Cosme as a bookmark for a Spanish lesson Tuesday dinner. When some plans fell through last week, I scooted over after class to see if I could find a seat in the bar.

Now, I definitely have some feelings about eating at/in the bar as a solo diner, or even when not alone. I plan on writing about it eventually, so I won’t get too much into it, but needless to say, where I sat at Cosme affected my overall enjoyment of my visit. With all seats around the bar and at the communal high-top bar tables taken, all that was left was a “table” in what felt more like a lounging section. There was a banquette along a small section of wall with three tables, and on the other side of the tables were low chairs, like you might find in a mod living room. If you’re at the banquette, the table is below your knees. If you’re on the chair, the table is slightly more appropriate to serve as a table, but you have to lean forward because the chair’s natural incline wants you to lean back. I didn’t take the table immediately because it looked like an awful place to eat. It’s where you sit with a drink and look pretty while you wait for a table. But after a few minutes of hoping that I might find another spot and didn’t, I took it. I was there, I was hungry, there was an open spot. FOMO took hold. And the table was as awkward and uncomfortable as I suspected. I ordered sitting at the banquette, facing out to the rest of the bar and people, then switched to the chair, to face the wall, while eating because it was near impossible to eat from the banquette. Thankfully, the food came quickly.

Too quickly? I was actually quite surprised at the speed at which my uni tostada and eggplant tamal came out. I realize that there is not much required for either of them to be prepared, but it felt a little bit jarring to barely have a sip of wine before the food came. The server had recommended a minimum of three savoury courses, and with the prices high, I hedged my bets on the minimum as I knew I would be having dessert.

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Uni tostada with avocado and bone marrow salsa

Oh, that uni tostada. The grumpies I had from my seat and disjointed initial service (I was asked both by a hostess and a harried server what I wanted to eat and drink), started to recede with each crispy bite from that blue corn tortilla. This tostada came highly recommended, but crispy is one of my least favourite textures and tostadas one of my least favourite Mexican snacks. Too often I find that the first bite results in the whole disc crackling apart with topping falling all down my front and/or onto the plate. What’s this? A first bite that stays as a bite with a circle of treasures still intact in my hands? Hooray! I can only guess this means that the tortilla was freshly fried. So yes, this was just awesome. The salsa had some nice heat to it, which played so well against the brininess of the uni and creaminess of the avocado. I didn’t want it to end.

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Eggplant tamal with fresh ricotta

I was fine with this tamal ending. It was very average. It seemed like there was eggplant pureed in with the masa. I couldn’t really taste it. Perhaps because the entirety didn’t taste like much. Even the ricotta was quite flat. Sorry vegetarians. As something to fill me up, it essentially served as very pricey bread service. Oh, and speaking of, I did not receive the gratis chips and dip I saw others receive.

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Half lobster pibil with chorizo, black bean purée, and mâche

This lobster was very good, but not transcendent. I found it to be a bit tough and not as sweet as I was hoping for. I ate the entirety as (all the) tacos. On its own, I think the earthiness of the black bean puree would have been a bit overpowering, but with the very fresh tortilla, it mellowed, with the sweetness of the corn enhancing the lobster. I found the chorizo got lost. The salsa was very bright.

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Husk meringue with corn mousse

And to the swoon. I think this is the most photographed dish coming out of Cosme right now. As much as I wanted to be contrary and order one of the other desserts, I couldn’t not try the corn mousse. Praise Jeebus that I did because it is one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. I’m usually not a fan of meringues, but this one came in on the side I like: chewy and not dusty/crispy. The *corn* mousse was the right amount of sweet and vegetal, and it sat in a cloud of freshly whipped cream. Both on the cooler side so as not to turn into a weeping mess on the plate. So much cream. So made for me. I will return to Cosme 100 times even if it is only to have this dessert. It made my back pain from the lounge chair disappear and my self-consciousness about awkwardly facing the wall seem like a trifle.

If my Spanish was workable at this point, I would have loved to have conversed with the gentlemen who ran the food out from the kitchen. They were warm and friendly and did excellent jobs of describing what was on the plates. They were also ever-present, which was the opposite position of what seemed like the sole, run-off-her-feet server who manned the front of the bar. The hostesses were not as snobby as I was expecting for a place that definitely has an air of For Beautiful People Only, but the top end of service could use some schooling from the bottom.

Perhaps I will make my return after my final lesson of this set so that I can properly thank those staff with my newfound skills. I at least have to learn how to say “Husk meringue forever.”

Rice, not ramen, at Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop

When I think of comfort, I think of all things white. White flour bread, white flour pasta, and white rice. All are essentially sugar to my blood, but when I need a hug from my food, this is what I reach for. Rice, the blandest one, tends to soothe the most. I have a long history with salty white rice and it can be traced to both my picky eating and its accessibility. No matter what kind of Asian food establishment my parents might have taken me to while growing up, the bottom of the menu would always make room for an order of steamed rice. If I didn’t want anything else, I could always have rice. My preference was for a sprinkling of table salt and not soy (don’t ask me why).

Rice was also something easy to find when at the mall (and malls play a big role in the life of people who live in a place where it feels like winter half the year) because in addition to A&W, you could always count on a food court having an Edo Japan. The plate of steamed rice for $1 (when I left it creeped up to $2), never failed to serve as sustenance while shopping, while studying late at university, or as a budget office lunch. Eventually, I graduated up to ordering the stir-fried vegetables sometimes (the sweet sauce meats were never my thing), but the rice was always the draw.

As I learned to boil water and make dinner for myself, rice was something easy like pasta, but I didn’t have to fiddle with a sauce.  The converted Uncle Ben’s version that my mother bought was never what I wanted (clumps, not grains, please), but it was fine for a preteen making do. Its banality and ease means it is also what I want when I am sick. Boring, warm, and filling makes me feel better. It comforts me in down times even more than my beloved bread and butter. When I need to have a pity party, I do my best with jasmine to make a little pot on the stove.

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Pork donburi rice bowl

But with no desire or room for a rice cooker, the sticky texture of rice from restaurants still has huge appeal. The pork donburi bowl at the Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop in Gotham West Market is my substitute for Edo. Well, not really substitute. More like one hundred times better version. The generous serving of white rice is there as my blankie, but then the stewed pork, roast tomatoes, and plum-wasabi sauce make me feel like I’m in a La-z-boy. It is sweet, salty, and meaty, but you never forget the support of the rice. It does its job of mellowing the stronger flavours and providing you with the carbs your blood is craving.

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Sweet scallion salad

Because I know I don’t eat enough green, I always bulk up my order with the sweet scallion salad. The yuzu dressing is mild, but it dampens the bite of the scallions and livens up the cucumbers. The pickles add the needed salt.

Why no promotion of the ramen? Because I have nothing really to add to the copious amount of praise Ivan Orkin has already received for his noodles and broths, and broth-less noodles. I’ve had ramen at both of his NYC locations and been extremely happy. Definitely destination ramen. But sometimes I don’t want the effort of the chew and slurp.  Sometimes, I want a big easy bowl of rice, and despite the name of the shop, this is the place I go to get one.

Lunch-only burgers: Roberta’s and Peter Luger

The burgers I ate growing up were mostly from fast-food restaurants or our backyard gas grill. I certainly liked burgers, but once I became a body-conscious teenager, I never really ordered them in restaurants. I never saw them as something to seek out or celebrate, especially as they were just hunks of cheap red meat… that were only ever eaten well done. My parents wouldn’t dare risk undercooking a burger for fear of food poisoning, and it was only until I ordered my first burger in the U.S. that I ever heard a server ask how I would like the burger cooked. In my experience, Canadians are much more fearful of food-borne illnesses in their ground beef than Americans. Anything less than fully cooked seemed too risky.  Even with the rise of chef-ier burgers. I mean, I read Fast Food Nation and knew potentially how many different cows might make up what should become a bloodless puck of overcooked beef. Why would I want any bit of pink?

Well, because I’ve learned just what a better burger experience can be had with rarer meat. The kind of experience that turns you into a person who does seek out and orders burgers, looking forward to the meat juice that will drip down your chin, then to your fingers, and hopefully, then to coat your fries.

New York is definitely a city that takes pride in its burgers, and there are lots of places where you can trust the source of the meat and that it is ground right there in the kitchen, largely removing any fear that your burger is made up of 1,000 cows. I find this city very much to be a meat-forward place, even with a new focus on vegetables. I mean, a story in this week’s New York Times discussed how prime rib is popping up all over the city again. The famous Black Label burger at the Minetta Tavern was the game changer for me. Pretty confident that I wasn’t going to get sick and acknowledging that getting a $28 burger cooked well done would possibly get me kicked out, I asked for… medium. I know that medium rare is most often recommended, but I’m not quite ready to go almost red. The pink of medium is living on the edge enough for me. And yes (it’s a fantastic burger), eating a burger with pink, juicy meat turned on an internal switch in understanding burger cravings. It’s more than just a red meat craving because it involves the act of getting your hands in there, squishing the bun, bringing it up close to your face, and then doing the whole Guy Fieri dance of trying to get it all into your mouth. It is much more primal than cutting off a bite of steak.

As a priss who generally doesn’t like messy finger food, I don’t get burger cravings very often. Shake Shack can take the edge off if I’m in a particular bad way, but I tend to plot out my burger eating when the mood strikes—how and when can I get a good one, not just any one. Lunch-only burgers are good for plotting because they sometimes require a day or afternoon off work. Roberta’s and Peter Luger Steakhouse both have lunch burgers that I planned for as their homebases are too far from work. (I’ve had the lunch-only burger at Gramercy Tavern and loved it, but as I have no photo and can technically eat it on my lunch hour, it’s not included here.)

Both of these burgers have considerable fan bases, so please seek out the reviews or blog posts if you want descriptions and information better than I could ever (care to) give about what kind of meat is used or how it stacks up to all the other famous burgers around New York. I’ve had a few of the notables (these two, Minetta Tavern, Gramercy Tavern, Dumont, The Breslin, The Spotted Pig), but I’m really not well versed in the intricacies of burger making and eating to say anything beyond I enjoyed all of them and these two are worth the praise they receive and the special visiting time they require.

Both burgers are substantial, but not gluttonous, as I easily finished my plate and had room to spare. Proper lunch servings, I suppose. I had them cooked medium, and they were beefy and juicy. The cheese kind of got lost on both, but I could argue it was good for a bit of salt.

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Roberta’s burger

I never visit Roberta’s during the day/brunch because I know it can still be hours to get a table. I ate my burger at a bar stool, but even on a Monday afternoon, the quoted wait for a table was 45 minutes. Potato buns are always winners and made up for the lack of fries. Switching between eating a burger with your hands to eating potatoes with a knife and fork is weird.

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Peter Luger burger

I was able to steal one of the remaining bar seats at Peter Luger before they stopped taking lunch orders. Also notoriously difficult to get into, Peter Luger is supposed to be one of the quintessential NYC steakhouse experiences. Not eating in the main dining room means I haven’t quite yet had this experience, but bar food orders are taken care of by dining room servers, so I got a bit of the old school attitude the servers are known for. My appetite could definitely have handled more fries, but I suppose, again, it was lunch.

Because I am writing this, you know that I’m totally fine and E.coli-free. If any of my Canadian lovelies are going to shame-shame me, do it because I killed many trees from all the napkins I used cleaning my hands and chin of burger juice.

Il Buco

My last vacation to New York was a few months before I ended up moving here. I have so many crystal clear memories of that trip. It was around the weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving/Columbus Day. I got out of the airport cab, stepped on to Clinton Street in Cobble Hill, and felt like I was where I was supposed to be. That first night, my friends and I had bubbles and turkey leg sandwiches at Henry Public and all was perfect. That week I had my first ladies lunch at ABC Kitchen, I took a shopping break and shared a Balthazar chocolate chip cookie on the steps of the Prince Street Equinox, I vowed to forever smell of Le Labo, and I experienced a pizza epiphany with my first visit to Roberta’s.

But what was most memorable about the trip was that I returned home for the first time with the resolve to finally sleuth around to see if I actually could move to New York.  Since my first visit seven years earlier, I had many laments about wanting, wishing, hoping to move. I thought it completely impossible for me as a Canadian; a Canadian who was not a doctor, scientist, lawyer, or insert highly-specialized-and-sought-after-job-of-your-choice here. But at dinner one night, my friend A pointedly responded to my “I wish I lived here” sighing with the question, “Well, why can’t you?” His tone and eye contact meant that it was not a question that allowed for the typical wishy-washy response of immigration hassle and qualification woes. He wanted a real answer, and I didn’t have one. That is why I love him. He doesn’t trifle with conversation niceties, but instead he is always thoughtful and direct. I had never actually done any research into how a person with a job like mine could move to the U.S. His question sat uneasily with me because I usually always have an answer. It was an itch that would have to be scratched when I returned to Canada so that I could properly Google and prove that it was impossible for me to move.

Yadda yadda yadda, five months later I was on a one-way flight to LaGuardia.

Another strong memory I have of that vacation was a dinner at Il Buco. At that time, sister restaurant Il Buco Alimentari was still under construction, so reservations at the original were a must. Part of why we had chosen Il Buco was because it was a longtime favourite of A’s, a place that considered him a regular. Therefore, it was a special part of NYC to a friend instead of just a “must try.” It also ended up being a memorable night because a new-to-me dinner companion is now someone I consider a friend. And the food. Well, I don’t remember much of that first meal (there may have been a lot of wine), but I know that it was a wonderful one. I do know that their panna cotta with aged balsamic, which I tried that night, is definitely the best version of that jiggly Italian pudding that I have ever had.

The atmosphere is not easy to forget. Lots of wood and warm lighting makes me think I’m in some Italian countryside cottage, though the prices lean more toward villa. Its rustic charm is what called to me on the first really cold night this fall, a night that indicated that it was more like winter. It was a Tuesday, and uncharacteristically, I didn’t want to go home for tea and TV. I wanted someone else to make me a comforting dinner and pour my wine. I wanted to push back against the cold wind and show it that I was not yet ready to give in and hibernate. I wanted Il Buco. It’s always busy and heavily reserved, but I figured the weather might give me a fighting chance for a seat at the bar, to channel A. It did, but just barely.

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Fava bean soup with spigarello

A rich red, a hearty soup, and a simple pasta carried me through a few New Yorker articles. The simple, housemade seedy bread belied its creation in the hands of a skilled baker. It was the cozy factor that removed the finer dining aspect that Il Buco can have—the Alimentari is the casual, cool younger sister—that I might not have wanted for a Tuesday alone at the bar. The soup and pasta warmed my bones and filled me up just as I wanted them to. The soup was thick, but not rich, and the spigarello (in the broccoli family, Google tells me) was the bitter needed to balance the smooth and mellow of the soup’s base. I loved the seasoning of the sausage against the sweetness of the squash in the perfectly al dente pasta. It was not a heavy dish, but there was enough butter to make it one for the cold weather. It being a Tuesday, I decided against the indulgence of the panna cotta and settled on having the buzz of the wine be my treat for the night.

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Rigatoni with kabocha squash, sausage, and pecorino

My three companions of that first visit were all New Yorkers when we’d dined and being closer to them was part of my desire to be here. But, now they are all Angelenos. Doh! This makes it much better for texting than when I was in Canada, which in one way has made us closer. Although another dinner altogether at Il Buco is unlikely anytime soon, I can now go there, not on vacation, and type to them, “Heading to Il Buco tonight. Thinking of you. Xo”