Monthly Archives: March 2015

Dining out alone: The bar

When I started blogging again, I always thought that I would write more about my experiences eating alone. I probably haven’t done so because there’s no security blanket of pictures to refer to and eat up space on the page. However, a semi-recent GQ article by David Chang on eating at the bar got me thinking about the subject again.

I’ve noticed that in many of the romantic odes to eating alone, there is always a promotion of eating at the bar. You can meet people, talk to the bartender, and you do not have to deal with all the customs that come with sitting at a table. Most importantly, getting a solo seat at the bar is often immensely easier than trying to get a table. The odds are always in your favour that there will be an odd seat out, and you will have either no wait or a very short one. This has been key for me getting into some perpetually busy or buzzy places. Sometimes, I’ll try to make reservations because I like planning ahead. But if I can’t or haven’t, being solo is the ticket for getting an easy seat.

That is the only reason I like to eat at the bar.

As an anti-social introvert, I rarely want to talk to people if I’ve chosen to eat out alone. If Prince Charming happens to approach me, so be it. But otherwise, as a solo female, I’m not eating alone at the bar because I’m waiting to be picked up or even to meet people. (INTJs don’t make room for spontaneous encounters of any kind.) I actually rarely have a problem with unwanted conversation. Probably because anti-social introverts are easy to recognize via their resting faces. The magazine I usually have my nose in also helps. That’s not to say that I have never ended up having some very nice conversations with strangers.

Bar seats can be really uncomfortable. Kind of an obvious one.

The actual bar can be awkward for eating. Sometimes the space is too narrow or you’re too tight to your neighbour for the cutlery, water glass, wine glass, bread plate, etc. And then a magazine? Reading off my phone is usually the only option.

A bartender’s first job is to tend bar. They are filling the drink orders for the entire restaurant. You just happen to also be their ward, so the service can be spotty. I find that in places that strongly encourage eating at the bar, you’re usually fine. But at places where you “can” eat at the bar, sometimes, even when you’re right in front of them, they forget about you.

Or maybe my resting face contributes to this as well.

Advertisements

JoJo

Although my office building shouts midtown, and my job is very much a nine-to-five office type, our location skews slightly more Upper East Side. So, instead of endless cubicle drones crowding the streets all day, there are just as many tourists and shoppers flocking to Bloomingdale’s, patients making their way to all the private doctors’ offices, and nannies ferrying uniformed children to one of the many private schools in the vicinity. If I don’t head to Central Park for my lunchtime walk, I might weave among the blocks of townhouses and Park Avenue apartments, sometimes getting a nod from the doormen but barely ever, a glimpse into life beyond the windows.

Instead of a home, one of the townhouses contains what seems like a secret Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, JoJo. I say secret because when people these days bring up Jean-Georges, it is usually in reference to ABC Kitchen, ABC Cocina, or his namesake restaurant. They are three places I have had excellent meals at despite shades of age and hype. But what’s this JoJo on the garden level of a townhouse in the east 60s? A prix fixe lunch for a friend’s birthday was an excuse to find out about what appears to be the elder statesmen of Jean-Georges’ NYC ventures.

IMG_3635.JPG

Butternut squash soup with black trumpet mushrooms

With the exception of very good food, there is very little that connects JoJo with the other places I’ve tried. That’s not to say that Jean-Georges’ other restaurants are similar, but something about JoJo makes it feel like an outlier. Perhaps because it swings so far to the Upper East Side ladies-who-lunch/intimate old person dinner in food, appearance, and atmosphere. There is no theme to the food, no suggestion of Jean-Georges’ strong Asian leanings, and no moment where you look at the plates and glassware and think, I want to buy those. Which is totally fine, and I make no judgment on that. There is a place for restaurants that are good for bringing grandmothers to, that are quiet and intimate for girlfriend catchups, or that just put out consistent plates of food that you can rely on for something like a special work lunch. The dining area feels small, but there is a charm to the townhouse aspect. The service is not as refined as you might expect, but it is friendly and earnest.

IMG_3636.JPG

Slow baked salmon with truffle vinaigrette

Although the menu felt a little dated or uninspired, we had no complaints about the food. My soup was hot and poured tableside. It was a perfectly smooth puree of squash accented by diced squash cubes and mushrooms. Exactly the thing needed to take the chill off a cold day, and it was executed in such a way that reminded you that someone famous has their name attached to the kitchen.

The salmon was cooked to the as-suggested medium rare, and while that vinaigrette was the unfortunate colour of pavement, I didn’t let a drop stay on the plate. With the creamy mashed potatoes underneath the fish, there was a pseudo-gravy-Thanksgiving-dinner hedonism to working that vinaigrette into every bite.

IMG_3637.JPG

Apple spice cake with cinnamon ice cream

The prix fixe dessert choices were not from the actual dessert menu and were rather boring in description, but they delivered in taste. My apple cake was super moist, and I loved the cinnamon ice cream. I would have been fine without the caramel and pepitas, but I understand their place. My grandmother probably wouldn’t have cared either, but she would have appreciated the effort.

Yuji Ramen omakase at Okonomi

I don’t think New Yorkers are rude, but I don’t think New Yorkers are nice. They can be helpful, but they’re rarely friendly. They can follow through, but they do so with impatience. I have gotten used to the brusqueness and have sometimes relished in letting my own sharp-edged shoulders finally poke through. But it can get tiring, especially when dining out. When an industry has at least one foot firmly planted in customer service, it is hard to explain the endless lack of warmth here, ESPECIALLY when servers get paid so poorly. I’ve always found it curious how New Yorkers, even the cash-strapped, will put down a 20% tip no matter what because of the lower server minimum wage. In a city full of hustlers, why don’t we require a little bit more hustle out of those we interact with when wanting a pleasant dining experience away from home?

When you do feel warmth here, it can be a bit jarring. Can it be trusted? Maybe they’re being a little too nice? What’s the catch? This is mostly for those that are not mom-and-pop, where the abundance of warmth and too-muchness can be the draw. And that distrust is just another pointer to New Yorkness. But, once those sharp edges dull from the presence of good food and the lack of a catch, it is hard not to want to bathe in the genuine kindness. It doesn’t take much. I’m not talking about Per Se level service or coat check tickets. I just mean being made to feel welcome, appreciated, and looked after with a level of friendliness that does not seem forced. The feeling that someone is happy to see you in their establishment and would like to see you return, both for their livelihood and because this is what they love to do.

I have always found this to be the case with the endeavors of the Yuji Ramen/Okonomi team. Yes, the food they put out is innovative and delicious, full stop. But they are also some of the most pleasant people to have ever served me, and I can only recommend that you frequent their establishment if you ever have the chance. I did not try Yuji Ramen when it was a Smorgasburg kiosk, but I did go when it was a long-term fixture of the Bowery Whole Foods for both a la carte ramen and for an evening ramen tasting/omakase. They have now moved on to a permanent home in Williamsburg. I have yet to try their set breakfast and lunch menu, but I have been back for the new (and pricier) ramen omakase.

Warmth, charm, comfort, ease. These are words I associate with my evening there. When there are only six to 10 other diners, the attention from the team (one server, two cooks) is constant but still casual. Explanations of dishes are simple, but they invite questions that are never turned down. The room would be sold as intimate rather than small, but my dining companion and I still had privacy for gossip. The soft lighting and beautiful pottery only enhance the feeling that you are taking a break from the outside grey and noise and being well taken care of for the evening.

And then there is the food. The portions seemed on the small side, but my big appetite left happy. The beer probably helped with that. They make their own ramen/pasta, so part of the delight is getting to try the uncharacteristic shapes and doughs. The amount of fish you eat over the course of the tasting is something to boast to your doctor about. I will just highlight some of my favourites from what I think was an eight-course tasting.

IMG_3683.JPG

Mackerel sashimi with cured cod roe

The cod roe in between the sashimi pieces was the star here. Curing = salty = love.

IMG_3686.JPG

Nori ramen agnolotti filled with monkfish liver

When these parcels popped and flooded my mouth with what amounts to the foie gras of the sea, I had a little death.

IMG_3685.JPG

Ochazuke with tilefish three ways

The ochazuke was described as pure comfort food: a homey broth complemented with (unseen) chewy brown rice. The tilefish was present in the broth, as sizable pieces, and then as a crispy skin garnish. The textural contrast served to underscore that it wasn’t my Japanese grandmother who dished me up this soup, but talented chefs.

Meatballs two ways

Meatballs have been occupying my mind for months. I’m not quite sure why. We were a spaghetti and meat sauce house, not meatballs. I don’t even remember having spaghetti and meatballs at a restaurant or friend’s house. I’ve never had the ones at Ikea. They weren’t a crockpot party staple. I feel my eating of meatballs is much more recent, within the last five years or so. I’ve never felt meatball-averse, just unfortunate luck, I suppose. I think this winter’s occupation is due to watching some boys sitting next to me tear into their meatball parm heroes the last time I was at Parm.

My meat craving is, as mentioned, a slow burn. Giving me time lots of time to obsess has less to do with a quest for perfection and more to do with creating ample desire. I am a carnivore on average once a week, so building to a climax is fun for me. My meatball craving coincided nicely with my resolution to learn more cooking techniques. And there was no shortage of winter-from-hell weekends to choose from to squirrel away in the comfort of an apartment with tropical radiator heating and attempt such a project. My research into recipes hit right around the Superbowl (crockpot party staple) AND Serious Eats’ meatball week, so there was plenty of meatball material to sift through. I remembered I had once seen something by Rachel Roddy about a one pot/two meal idea with meatballs that stuck. Then there was that post by The Wednesday Chef. And then Melissa Clark got in on the parmigiana recipes. Bases were covered.

I liked Rachel’s idea of getting more than one meal out of the meatballs, and not because I’m a fan of leftovers. Because I’m anything but. This would be a secondary learning opportunity. Why don’t you like leftovers? So many ask. They’re so good! Economical! So many things are better the next day! On that last point, I agree. But for such things, I consider them make-ahead. Not leftovers. The act of reheating changes most things in my opinion, and not in a good way. The real reason I don’t like leftovers is because that is all there was in my house for most of the childhood and adolescence that I remember. Most of us had working moms in the 80s, that’s not exceptional to my story, but my mother transitioned to a job where her work carried through the dinner hour. Most weeknights she wasn’t home until post-8 pm. In my bubble, this was exceptional. Add to that a dad who didn’t cook, and our fridge was full of, (I’m currently laughing) make-ahead meals and leftovers for us to reheat in the microwave. For me, it got old almost immediately, so I transitioned to assembling my own dinners. The only leftovers I enjoy now are from the big food holidays. Otherwise, it is a dish I never eat. A doggy bag is something I never carry. I prefer freshly toasted pieces of bread over yesterday’s x, y, z.

But, I don’t like wasting ingredients that I’ve spent money on (I can be cheap), and I knew it would be impossible to make just a few meatballs and a small portion of sauce for one meal. I also wanted to eat meatballs relatively unadorned (like with spaghetti) to get a sense of how well I might have made them and in a big fat sandwich. I would have to eat leftovers. But I would gussy them up enough to find bliss.
IMG_4143

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons for me in making meatballs is getting comfortable touching raw meat. This is a primary reason for why I don’t cook meat often. Being a germaphobe, I fear that my small kitchen becomes a site of contamination no matter how diligent I am. It’s easier for me just to avoid it. Which then just feeds the vicious circle of not being comfortable cooking it. My workaround is to ask the butcher for a pair of their latex gloves.

I followed the newest Serious Eats recipe but did not get super nerdy with the additions of gelatin and stock. I halved the recipe and got the expected five large balls from it. I had no problems except that I think I probably could have diced my onion and garlic finer. I can be very lazy when it comes to precise knife skills. Oh, and I forgot the pancetta. After browning under the broiler, they finished cooking in a sauce from Melissa Clark, which I was very happy with and would return to again if I needed a basic tomato sauce.

Eating them atop spaghetti allowed me to gauge if they were moist enough without the forgotten pork fat (the gelatin is considered optional), and I would say yes. Dry is not a word I would use to describe them. They had that great bit of give from the crust when you cut through with your fork. I think I would miss that in the recipes I read that called for poaching balls in a sauce. I am not adept enough in texture to know if I overhandled them during forming, though.

IMG_4144

As nice as that bowl was, the meatball parm hero was better. How could it not have been? I again went to Serious Eats for the construction, and the only change I made was adding basil. Oh, and I made my own semolina hero roll. It was a very serious weekend of hibernation. With the hero planned as a Sunday night meal, I kind of screwed myself in being able to buy a fresh roll. Most of the good Italian bakeries in the city close early on Sundays or are not open at all. A baguette would just not do if I was going to do something great with my leftovers.  I wanted some authenticity. I scaled down a King Arthur recipe, and despite not doing a very good job at shaping the little loaf, it worked perfectly. Serious Eats’ suggestion to cut the large balls in half was a good one, as it prevented whole balls from falling out when taking a bite. That’s not to say there was no mess. But unlike the boys at Parm, I had no one see me get sauce on my chin.

IMG_4161

The recipes:

Meatballs

Tomato sauce

Hero construction

Semolina bread

IMG_4163

Bar Ciccio Alimentari

I went to Italy once. My travel companions and I spent a few days each in Venice, Florence, and Rome and took day tours to Verona, Assisi, and Pisa. It was all about beautiful scenery, incredible architecture, and classic art. I was not yet into exploring food (beyond gelato), so I have a deep yearning to go back one day. It was my first time in Europe, and I think I was too excited to be away from home on such a big trip that I didn’t put much thought into anything that I did. This could also be due to the fact that I was 14 years old and on a school trip.

At my junior high school, ninth graders had the opportunity to go on a Europe trip over spring break, which was organized by the Social Studies department. They usually alternated between France and Germany, but for the first time, Italy came up when I hit grade nine. Jackpot for this leather shoe and spaghetti lover. (I can’t remember the details of how I got my parents to pay for it, probably something to do with my impeccable marks.) But going to Europe as a teenager and given copious amounts of free time meant that I did little actual touring beyond the required morning tours with our guide. Afternoons were usually spent eating gelato, window shopping, and scoping out Italian boys. To be expected, of course, but I often curse my younger self for not getting more out of the trip.

We always ate dinner at a restaurant relatively close to our hotel, and while I don’t recall them being overly touristy, they had to accommodate a group of 20+ and be willing to put up with a bunch of Anglo teens. Out of everything we ate, the dish I remember most was a lasagna we ate once as our primi. Up to that point, the only lasagna I ever knew was the three-layer version filled with a hearty meat sauce, cottage cheese, and brick mozzarella. With crispy corners and blistered spots of cheese, this was “lasagna” to my friends and family. You might see ricotta instead of cottage cheese if someone was trying to be fancy, and you definitely started seeing a chicken version make the rounds at dinner parties once The Best of Bridge published a recipe affectionately considered “death to dieters.”

I remember the lasagna because it was nothing like one I had ever had before. It was easily made up of at least five layers of pasta, with each separated by a light touch of cheese and a thin pool of tomato sauce. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was receiving some schooling in Italian simplicity. I’m glad that I remember this more clearly than any boy we may have ogled.

Bar Ciccio Alimentari on the edge of Soho reminds me a little of those restaurants we visited: small, slightly cavernous, bustling. Perhaps it feels like Italy because I know it’s run by Italians. A friend and I discovered it about two years ago and had a wonderful dinner one night. But as can be the case here, I never returned until recently. So little time, so much food. On my return, it ended up being the perfect respite from a cold night, with an easy reservation, a full house to provide a warm atmosphere, and plenty of carbohydrates to help with cold weather padding.

And to return to what I was talking about before—I had the lasagna, and it reminded me of that which I had in Italy. While it certainly wouldn’t be considered restrained, this lasagna is still lighter than the casserole I grew up with. The ample amount of sauce adds a lot of bulk to the presentation, but when considering the lasagna on its own, the layers of pasta with artichokes, leeks, and stracchino cheese did not push the boundaries of indulgence too hard. It being a vegetable lasagna probably helped with this. It did push those boundaries, though, in being a multi-layered cheese and carbohydrate dish, and I was very satisfied.

We started with a salumi board and a notable serving of burrata. Neither of us had ever had burrata served atop sautéed winter greens, and we ended up loving it. The milky flavour of the cheese paired well with the bitterness below. A salty bite from the board added to that, and our metabolisms revved quickly.

I decided to have the non-Italian option for dessert: apple strudel. It worked. Anything with whipped cream usually works for me.

Now that I think about it, maybe I chose the strudel because on some subconscious level I was connecting to my Italy trip—I think our tour guide was from Austria.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/5a6/73326035/files/2014/12/img_3875-0.jpg

Salumi board and burrata over winter greens

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/5a6/73326035/files/2014/12/img_3876-0.jpg

Lasagna dall’orto

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/5a6/73326035/files/2014/12/img_3878.jpg

Apple strudel