Monthly Archives: June 2015

Katz’s Delicatessen

I still find it strange that I’m actually living in New York. I’ve largely moved beyond the pinch-me-I-am-dreaming feelings to ones that are more about just thinking that it’s weird that I’m still here, surviving and getting to feel like this is a city that will somehow be mine. But that doesn’t remove the knowledge that I will one day be gone, either because I want something new or because survival is no longer possible given the expense. But even though that day is not near, I still have a running list in the back of my mind of things that I know I will regret not doing before I leave. A slightly different list than one of foods I want to try or places I want to visit. Having a hot pastrami sandwich at Katz’s was definitely on the regret list. Especially as it’s been 11 years since my first trip here. There is no question that it is a must-visit New York City institution, especially now that many historic establishments are shutting down. Of course, there is the When Harry Met Sally connection, too, which was just as good of a reason for me to make a long overdue first visit.

I can do tourists, lines, awkward service, and surly staff. The pastrami was what kept me at bay for so long. Despite being a happy meat eater, I still haven’t developed much of an affinity for rich flesh, especially that which is smoked. I’ve always been fine with bacon, but I never really seek it out. Chunks of pork belly can be too much for me. Southern BBQ has yet to convert me. I can easily eat a bowl of fat whipped cream, but there’s just something about smoke where a few bites can be more than enough. I went near starving for some assurance that I would give it a fair chance. My order was the standard pastrami on rye.

I now understand the importance and the skill of the men who cut the meat because the hefty cuts were indeed like butter. The ease with which a bite could be taken was unbelievable to me. No pulling, tearing, or cutting needed. Dentures would be optional for my grandmother, I’m guessing. The heat and brine of the mustard and pickles are essential for balancing the strong flavours of the warm, fatty pastrami, and the pickles give textural contrast to the soft meat/bread. I don’t think the sandwich is too big for one person. There is some height there, but rye slices are small. The sandwich is on the equivalent of like a salad or dessert plate. Unless you’re a child, no one should have any issues managing it. But this brings up two things:

One, even if size is not an issue, the richness of the meat can be. By the end, I was beyond satiated. The spices and the smoke (and the fat) turn a small sandwich into a sizable meal, and I could feel it. I am someone who often doesn’t register being full, but on this day, I was very full*. I probably shouldn’t have finished it, but that pastrami. I also now understand why people flock to it. It’s not a flavour I will crave, but I get it now.

Two, the height of the sandwich makes it easy for slices to slip out. Those were the best bites I took. I enjoy sandwiches, obviously, but that rye bread is as awful as I’d read about. Perhaps even worse. The texture was like a kitchen sponge, and it’s easy just to say that’s what it tasted like, too. The only redeeming quality is that it didn’t fall apart from the meat juices. See? Kitchen sponge.

*I made room for Dominique Ansel’s burrata soft-serve ice cream, mind you, about an hour later.

J.G. Melon

It’s a beautiful night, and the patio is getting full. I’m standing in the doorway, and from what I can see of the interior, it also looks to be very busy.

A large, aging man gruffly asks me to get out of the way and to step inside.

How many?
One.

He leads me through the bar, where I assume we’ll stop at the empty stool. We don’t. We walk past to the back room, and he stops at a table for two, gesturing for me to sit down.

Oh, would you prefer that I sit at the bar so that you can have this for a party of two?
Would you like to sit at the bar?

I just don’t want to take a seat away from you right now if you’d prefer it be filled. I noticed other people waiting behind me when I was in the doorway.
Would you like to sit at the bar or at this table?

I can see he’s slightly annoyed at the time we’re wasting. There are other things he should be doing, and I’m prolonging a conversation that should never have existed. But I can’t help myself.
I’ll sit wherever you prefer.
I’ll seat you wherever you prefer.

All of a sudden, I get that I can trust him. He’s not being nice for the sake of it. I can try and stop being polite for the sake of it.
Well, okay. I’d like to sit at the table.
Look, I eat out by myself all the time. I want you to sit where you want. Enjoy your dinner.

This short conversation is all that really matters to me about my first time at J.G. Melon. Or rather, the host with little patience who makes an appearance in Yelp reviews made my night. There is, of course, the old school charm of the place, the staff, and the watermelon (hence, Melon) décor, and most importantly, the well-known burger. But all that felt secondary after my small moment of validation.

The famous burger was a great burger in what is clearly a city of great burgers. I no longer see a point for “best.” For whatever reason, I decided no cheese on my medium order, but definitely asked for the off-menu grilled onions. A good move. Somehow, the small toasted bun managed to stay together for the entire experience, leaving no beef crumbles or overly messy fingers. The cottage fries were odd, but good. I was thinking they’d be potato slices, but instead they were almost hollow puffs.  The seasonal pie was strawberry-rhubarb, and I was all over it.

And yes, I drink Heineken.

      

Grandma Ruby’s perogies

The story goes that when my teen-aged grandfather arrived in Canada from the Ukraine, Soviet Russia by that time, he was set on fully embracing his new identity as a Canadian. As the shunted son, Grandpa Joe had no use for the customs of the Old Country. Thus, despite being 50 percent genetically Ukrainian, I never felt culturally Ukrainian beyond a few dishes my Grandma Ruby would make for the holidays.

Their house and life screamed average North American. Joe fought for Canada in Italy during World War II and while he married fellow Ukrainian Ruby, they only used their Mother Tongue for arguments. He worked at a meat processing plant, she at a department store. There was always a package of glazed doughnuts on their kitchen counter. Reno was the favoured vacation destination when they could afford it. When I was little, visits to their house involved my mom and Ruby chatting in the kitchen, while I would sit in the living room reading the giant pile of National Enquirer, Star, and Woman’s World, that Ruby bought weekly from Safeway. Michael Jackson, Liberace, Liz Taylor and Larry Fortensky, young Lisa Marie Presley. Images of my youth. Neilson Rosebuds were always around to snack on. I relished pouring myself small glasses of real (my parents bought diet) Pepsi. And if I got control over the remote, I was able to watch the “pay TV” channels of MuchMusic and Superchannel—channels that required the special cable box that my parents would not pay for.

At Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, the Eastern roots were revealed on the table.  On Christmas Eve, Ruby would sometimes put out a few of the traditional Ukrainian meatless dishes, but over time, it just became perogies and cabbage rolls. And yes, perogies are a Polish term, but I’ve yet to meet a Ukrainian-Albertan who uses any other word. Never once did I hear “varenyky.” Well, Ruby uses the word “pudaheh,” which only now I’ve come to learn is related to a dialect miscommunication.

The second story goes that when my mother was a teenager, her and one of her sisters were going to learn how to make their mother’s pudaheh. But the lesson abruptly ended when the girls started throwing flour at each other. Ruby wouldn’t put up with it.  Although I feel more New Yorker than Ukrainian, I finally realized that I couldn’t let the recipe die with Ruby. If those silly sisters weren’t going to try again, then I was going to. I asked my aunt to try and get some measurements and a method from my grandma so that May’s cooking lesson could be perogies.   

Like any good recipe that’s based on feel, memory, and experience, exact measurements are hard to come by. As soon as I opened my aunt’s Word document, I knew that many things were off and pure guesses on my grandma’s part. Two-inch circles for the perogies, Grandma Ruby, really? Perhaps 2 inches in radius? One teaspoon of filling? That much flour? I quickly consulted the internet and Ukrainian friends to compare. The result was as funny as Ruby’s measurements—it would seem, rightly so in hindsight, that every baba has her own method and ingredients for perogies. Trying to find a recipe like Ruby’s would be impossible, so I would have to wing it. And for a simple peasant dish of largely dough, I felt I could fumble along.

I did so with success. I’m not going to share the recipe because of how off the measurements are and because I feel that just like every perogy recipe, each person is specific in what they like in a perogy. She doesn’t use cottage cheese, but potato and cheddar cheese. Many people bathe their dumplings in melted butter and browned onions, but Ruby only serves hers with butter. Because she includes sautéed onions in the filling. Her lumpen dumplings look like they were made with thick, chubby hands; they are never  crimped artistically or delicate in any way. I only ever eat my pudaheh boiled as that is the only way I was ever served them. No frying whatsoever. Even as leftovers. Soft and buttery with some fresh cracked pepper is all I want.  Mine tasted and smelled and even looked like Ruby’s. They mean I don’t have to go to Veselka or the new all-perogy joint in Brooklyn if I need a fix. They mean I’m a little bit Ukrainian.

Keens Steakhouse

I like love to plan. My friends would probably say that was a giant understatement. I take solace in knowing that we will be doing something and will get to avoid the opener, “Hey stranger!” in our next email exchange. Being impulsive sounds sexy and adventurous, but those are two adjectives I would never associate with myself. Unless of course I can plan to be those ways. I know few people who can be impulsive anymore anyway. Spouses, children, jobs, fatigue, Game of Thrones, working out, and alone time are just a few of the things that keep impulsivity in the realm of the ideal and in dating profiles.

Plans make me feel grounded and secure. A vast sea of time in front of me where things only might occur results in me retreating or being stressed about everything occurring all at once. That is much too much for this introvert. Which is why planning for dedicated alone/anti-social time is also essential.

We often get out of work early on the Friday before a long weekend and that proves to be a great time to go to a late afternoon matinee with no crowds. When my long weekend kind of now feels like four days instead of three, I’m not going to celebrate by going home to cook, but where to go for dinner when I exit AMC and I’m at Penn Station? Lots of could’s involving the subway rack my brain, hunger fuelling indecisiveness.  This Friday night was warm enough that I preferred walking somewhere. I remembered Keens was nearby. Heading to a busy restaurant on a Friday night on a whim is as close as I get to impulsive.

As a historic New York steakhouse, I’ve always wanted to visit Keens. But I’m not much of a steak person in that expensive cuts can be easily lost on me. That’s why I had the burger at Peter Luger. I knew that Monday to Friday, Keens offered a pub menu with more casual and affordable options, such as a notable burger, which you could eat at the bar. As I was only a few blocks away, I thought I’d see if I could find a seat.

Walking into the bar room, I was greeted by the famous painting of Miss Keens and no place to sit. I discovered that in addition to the dining room and the small bar area, the space between the two was the pub room where I could put my name down and wait to be seated for table service with either the main or pub menu. With only a 10 minute wait, I opted for this unexpected option. Because, I tend to be more of a table girl.

When seated in the cozy room with white-shirted waiters and decor that makes you forget the twenty-first century, I no longer wanted the burger. It felt like I would be getting a kids meal. But I didn’t want to knife-and-fork a hunk of meat either. So, obviously a steak sandwich. I can’t shake the craving for wanting to hold onto something and have my teeth rip through chewy carbs. But do I get the aged sirloin or the bavette steak? Despite just telling you that I’m not sophisticated enough for fancy steaks, I ordered the sirloin. I think I wanted to impress my waitress.

I won’t be able to impress you with an apt description of how it tasted because I probably could have had the bavette and been just as happy. The steak tasted like… steak. The waitress did say that a difference I would notice (I asked) was that the bavette was marinated. The sirloin had a nice sear and was lightly seasoned. I should have removed the lettuce because it caused the slices of meat to slip around a bit in the sandwich. The bread was nice and soft and caught the juices without turning to mush. The horseradish sauce on the side was disappointing in that it tasted little more than sour cream, not even mayo. However, the grilled onions more than made up for that lack. They were perfect, soft and sweet, yet with smokiness from the fire. The fries were neither soggy or crispy, and they were not noteworthy for flavour. They were just your average, but completely serviceable, fries. Salty enough yet also better with ketchup.

And, dessert. I knew that Keens was generous with the whipped cream on their sundaes, so it was not difficult for me to go with the butterscotch. I also can’t resist something in a long-stemmed coupe.  Rightly composed with the large scoop of vanilla ice cream sitting in a puddle of butterscotch sauce, the sundae is topped with an equally large dollop of softly whipped and gently sweetened cream. With salted caramel everything available everywhere, it’s nice to return to a classic like butterscotch, reminding me of the butterscotch candies my grandmother would have in her living room candy dish.

I was almost bested by that cream, but I persevered. I could hear Miss Keens cheering me on from the next room.