Monthly Archives: August 2015

B & H Dairy Kosher Restaurant

Unlike past years and in the interest of saving money, this summer I wasn’t planning on doing any upscale lunches on my Summer Friday afternoons. But then favourable reviews for The Clocktower started coming out in July, and I decided I would treat myself before the seriousness of September began. Critics and bloggers seemed to be into the lunch-only fish and chips, and as some friends and I have a bit of an in joke about ordering this dish, I thought it would be a fun choice. Two days before my reservation, Pete Wells of the New York Times filed his two-star review and for a moment, I wore a smug smile. But then it quickly wore off. I didn’t really want to go. I didn’t want to go to a hotel restaurant. I didn’t want “celebratory elegance.” I just wasn’t in the mood to spend a lot on lunch and have my tush kissed. When I think about the meals I’ve spent a large chunk of cash on or saved up for, I think about returning to places like Semilla, Luksus, The Catbird Seat, Blanca, and Momofuku Ko, rather than Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Del Posto, or Le Bernardin. Smaller, less formal places, whose food and atmosphere I feel more at ease with, more excited about. I was pre-judging The Clocktower, yes, but even if I left it at wanting to save money, I was justified.

So, when I left work on Friday, I headed to the East Village for a $9 (tip included) lunch at a New York institution and one of the only remaining dairy kosher diners in the city: B & H Dairy Kosher Restaurant. It was always a place I had wanted to try for its history, but like so many places on such lists I have, I had yet to make a visit. “Yet” might have been “never” when disaster struck with a devastating explosion in the spring. My need for the opposite of fine dining and its reopening coincided perfectly.

B & H is well-known for its house challah bread, which can pretty much work its way into almost anything that you order. For the amount they must go through, I’m not surprised that it’s not overly eggy or rich. It’s got that good challah crust, though. Soups, blintzes, perogies, and tuna melts all get lots of fanfare, but I decided to try the apple and cheddar omelette, knowing I’d get bread and homefries. I usually prefer my omelettes unblemished and barely set, but I didn’t mind this well-cooked one. Chopped apple is fried on the griddle before the eggs get added. This softens the apple, but it also allows for some of the natural sugar to be released. The omelette definitely has a sweetness to it, and I’m thinking that the browning is not so much overcooked egg as it is a degree of caramelization from the sugar. You can’t see it in the picture, but within lies a band of melted orange cheddar cheese. I hacked off swaths of the omelette and placed it on the soft, buttered challah. More salt was needed across the plate, but that’s what a shaker is for. I don’t quibble over having to add seasoning when food is this affordable. Ketchup for the homefries and all was right with my afternoon.

But obviously, a visit to B & H is about much more than the food. It’s about watching in awe the perfect orchestration of ordering, cooking, serving, and eating that occurs in a mere sliver of a diner. And if you’re a two-top and decide to sit at a table, table service means standing up to the counter and taking your plate when called – there’s no room for the host/server/cook to come out and present anything to you. It’s about watching a small Latino man coordinate (and cook most) orders and the tasks of the two other kitchen staff while simultaneously being warm to customers and clearing plates. It’s about sitting on an old stool between an NYU student and a crotchety relic from the neighbourhood. It’s about New York brusqueness. It’s about an experience of this city that you will never get at a place like The Clocktower. It’s about being thankful that such experiences still exist.

[I pretty much want the sentiment of all my blog posts to be a variation on this last paragraph.]


Ba Xuyen

In the last few years, I’ve noticed that I use “adventure” a lot to describe my excursions or trips. I’m not sure how a well-planned holiday qualifies as an adventure, but I’m thinking it has something to do with my age and looking for ways to trick myself into greater excitement. On the flip side, when I’m not looking forward to doing something that may be boring or drawn out or when something was unpleasant but benign, I call the event an adventure. The act of moving to New York and trying to find an apartment was an adventure, fainting for the first time this year was an adventure, and spending an hour on a local train to try a new restaurant, such as going for Chinese food in Flushing, is an adventure. I mean, there’s really no need to travel far for good Chinese food, but getting out to a new neighbourhood reminds me of this city’s vastness and that for it to ever be considered home, I should try to acquaint myself with as much of it as possible.

I used to marvel at how different some of the outer borough neighbourhoods felt from Manhattan and Manhattanized Brooklyn, but after this visit, um, adventure, to Sunset Park for the Vietnamese sandwich known as banh mi, I am now reminded just how similar they are. Where once I would walk past the fence of L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst and declare, “I can’t believe we’re still in New York,” I now feel as though we couldn’t be anywhere but New York. So, when I got off the subway on a warm summer Friday afternoon in the unfamiliar neighbourhood south of Greenwood Cemetery, I might have known that I was far from my home, but I was still very much in my city. It’s hard for me to pinpoint why exactly. Row houses of brick, the green globe lights of a subway entrance, worn sidewalks, some form of bodega, someone speaking Spanish, the forced air of a bus’ brakes, the muffled rumble of trains on a track. All things that can be found in other cities for the most part, but somehow when taken as a whole, mean New York to me.

So, lunch at Ba Xuyen was less of an adventure to me because there was no marveling at its same-same-but-different status. Lunch at Ba Xuyen was purely about trying banh mi from a place that many people consider to be the best in the city. I first learned of the small spot from the Instagram account of Andy Ricker, the chef/owner of the Pok Pok group of restaurants. American, yes, but he’s known for having travelled and studied extensively in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam. I felt he was a reliable source. But once only scratching the surface of Google for more info, it was clear that there was a lot of love for these banh mi. Given it is my #summerofsandwiches, I was in.

I eschewed the popular choice of the #1 cold cut combination and went with the #8 grilled pork. It was definitely worth the subway ride (adventure?). The bread was warm, with a crisp crust and a crumb much lighter than a baguette. For the first time in my banh mi experience, the cilantro, picked daikon, and pickled carrots were arranged so expertly that no bite had not enough or too much of these crucial toppings. The pate on the bottom half of the bread was not copious, but there was enough of its richness to suggest that your sandwich was dressed with more than just mayo—which was applied liberally enough so that bites were creamy but not messy. The grilled pork was somewhat more saucy than expected, but not unwelcome, as it was very tender. The last textural contrast was the light touch of crushed peanuts, adding sweetness in addition to crunch.

The internet and social media also espouse Ba Xuyen’s sinh to or thick, fruit milkshakes. I love the mild creaminess of an avocado shake, but I can’t turn down durian, especially when it’s in something sweet as opposed to freshly cut. My gateway into the land of durian was ice cream was when I was in Vietnam, and I’ve come to really appreciate the stinky fruit. I’ve found that in preparations such as ice cream and shakes, there is no tell-tale aroma. It’s highly unlikely that there’s any fresh durian in the shake. But you know, if you know, that a relief from the fragrance regardless of the processed form you may be enjoying is most welcome.

15 East

For those who don’t know, my hometown of Edmonton is a mid-size city on the Canadian prairies. A landscape composed of malls (strip and freestanding), evergreen trees, and a river. Because for all intents and purposes, Edmonton is landlocked and often (too) proud of being a big, small town, sushi’s popularity was slow to pick up speed initially.  When it did, however, that on offer at all those mall food courts definitely helped the taste for it grow. I guess like in most places, the strategy for eating sushi in Edmonton was to determine who could do the best with the fish available and always go there unless somebody better came along. In Edmonton, it somehow felt more important because the good places didn’t come around very often. Thus, when I lived there, it was very much a place where you had only one solid choice for every restaurant category. Vancouver, on the other hand, was sushi paradise. It was literally on every corner. Even when it was bad, it still wasn’t supermarket or mall food court bad. And when you found your good, solid places—maybe something for a work takeout lunch, a sit-down work lunch, home takeout, and somewhere to go with friends—you stuck with them not because something better wasn’t on the horizon, but because it was just easier to stick with the good you knew. Especially because your places would be affordable. Sushi didn’t have to be a treat in Vancouver (although it could be if money allowed); it was the fallback choice.

Those were the days.  I was actually shocked at how mediocre the sushi in New York was when I moved here. Don’t get me wrong, New York has some incredible sushi restaurants. But those are the places where you’re paying at least $100 per person. Finding a reasonably priced, acceptable quality place that could be a standard near work or home in the sub-$20-for-takeout region was not easy. Prices were almost double what I was paying in Vancouver for certain items. And the rice. Oh, New York sushi rice can be horrible.  Good rice can go a long way in dressing up okay fish, but mushy, overly wet rice can make anything in its vicinity taste rotten.

Sure, I’ve found some places that satisfy without wreaking havoc on my wallet. But, just barely, and when I really have a craving, I try to take advantage of the lunch deals at the nice-nice places. The dinner prices scream expense account, and I don’t have one of those.  I’ve relied on Sushi Yasuda’s five pieces of sushi + one roll lunch combination for this purpose. But with a summer Friday on my calendar, I decided to try 15 East.

I always prefer to be distracted while eating. Reading, watching, talking. I don’t shovel my food, but especially when alone, I like to keep my mind occupied along with my stomach. Except, I’ve learned, when I’m at a nice sushi bar. With only one other diner at 15 East’s bar, which seats maybe 10 people, there was no need to do anything but quietly watch and wait as the sushi chef prepared each of my seven (then eight, then a roll) pieces of sushi (Chef’s choice).  There was recently a change in the head chef, but I don’t know if the quality has changed. The replacement who stood in front of me and prepped my lunch did not have me questioning all the praise the restaurant has previously received.

His role: The slicing of the fish, the quick rolling of the rice, the chosen embellishment or brushstroke of soy, wiping the marble serving bar, the placement in front of me.
Mine:  “Thank you,” into my mouth, quick rub of the finger towel.
Repeat. Variation: Sea perch, striped jack, horse mackerel, Bluefin lean tuna, medium fatty tuna, sea urchin, sea eel.

The only thing that prevented this from being a swift 15-minute lunch was accepting the offer for more, and adding a piece of tamago and a salmon skin roll (I miss the B.C. rolls of Vancouver…). The fish was perfect, the rice was perfect. There was no time to read or watch others. Definitely a Serenity Now moment. I know that paying [$35 (7 pieces) + $5 (tamago) + $6 (roll) + tip =] $60 for lunch isn’t exactly affordable. But for a place like 15 East, it’s almost a bargain. Especially when 10 pieces at dinner will run you $60 alone. And I quickly learned that the Chef’s Choice served at the sushi bar is a more interesting mix than the seven-piece Chef’s Choice I saw being plated for those who were sitting in the dining room. No one out there got uni, for instance. And the dining room plate was prepped almost entirely by the second-in-command. I don’t always like eating at a bar, but when it means I get the Captain, yes, please.

Horse mackerel (aji)

Medium fatty tuna (chu-toro)

Santa Barbara sea urchin (uni)

Sea eel (anago)

Egg omelet (tamago)